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On 29th August, the South African government reiterated its condemnation of the use of chemical warfare and other weapons of mass destruction, saying that ‘no cause could ever justify the use of such weapons’. It also condemned the escalating violence in the two year conflict in Syria. The statement warned against the use of ‘dangerous rhetoric’, pointing to the possibility of a military intervention, but stopped short of naming the USA and France. On the same evening as the government’s statement, the British Parliament, by a very narrow margin, voted against participation in any military intervention in Syria. Germany and Italy had already earlier that day adopted similar positions.
The SA statement reflected a growing international consensus around four key issues.
Firstly, it held the line that no intervention would be justified at least until the United Nations weapons inspectors had completed their investigations and had reported their findings.
Secondly, it endorsed the position that only the United Nations Security Council could mandate the use of military force in trying to bring about a solution to the conflict, and that any attack on Syria without such authorisation would constitute a grave violation of international law ‘that would severely undermine international order’.
Thirdly, and linked to this, the SA government maintained that any military action, especially bombing, would render the lives of Syrians more vulnerable and would further destroy the already crumbling infrastructure which would in the long run make any sustainable recovery even more difficult. Instead, the statement urged that there should be increased pressure on all parties to find a political solution to the conflict, and that there should be an ‘urgent, all inclusive national dialogue, free of any interference or insistence on regime change, in order to satisfy the legitimate democratic aspirations of all the Syrian people.
Fourthly, the statement underlined the urgent need for an immediate end to the multiple human rights abuses in the conflict, especially against the most vulnerable, such as various minorities, women and children. It challenged all parties to take responsibility for the protection of human rights.
In addition to these sentiments echoing an international consensus, they also reflect the direction taken by Pope Francis as reported in a statement issued by the Vatican after a visit by King Abdullah II of Jordan, where the Pope said, “clash of weapons…be silenced. It is not conflict that offers prospects of hope for solving problems, but rather the capacity for encounter and dialogue.”
Various Episcopal Conferences have also raised points similar to those raised in the SA statement. The German Catholic Bishops’ Conference noted that, in terms of the church’s position, the punitive action contemplated by some countries evoked ‘considerable concerns’ and that at present greater clarity is still required to show that the chemical attacks were definitely the responsibility of President Assad. The Conference also queried whether all non-military options had been explored in the quest for peace and for holding the perpetrators of the attacks to account. With many others, it pointed to the responsibility of the UN Security Council to authorise any military intervention and noted that the UNSC ‘has not been able as yet to formulate a common international policy on Syria.’ It pondered whether ‘punitive action would bring Syria closer to peace or move Syria even further away from peace.’ It also raised the question as to whether punitive acts would thrust neighbouring countries into further involvement in the conflict.
The Bishops of the USA, in a letter to US Secretary of State, John Kerry, commented:
‘The longstanding position of our Conference of Bishops is that the Syrian people urgently need a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians, one that respects human rights and religious freedom. We ask the United States to work with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance, and encourage building an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities.’
It thus appears that the position adopted by the SA government seems to be, broadly speaking, in line with the dominant position in the international community’s discourse, and one echoed in the faith community’s discernment. On those grounds it should be given serious consideration.