Archbishop of Canterbury addresses the British House of Lords on Syria

Archbishop of Canterbury addresses the British House of Lords on Syria


[The following is the text of Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury’s speech to the House of Lords on the possibility of military strikes against Syria.  The British Parliament defeated the motion to use force after today’s debate.]

My Lords, I very much welcome the opportunity to have been able to speak later in this debate because of the extraordinary quality of many of the contributions that have been made, and how much one can learn by listening to them. Like many noble Lords I have some experience in the region, partly from this role that I have and recent visits and contacts with many faith leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths, and also through 10 years of, from time to time, working on reconciliation projects.

I don’t intend to repeat the powerful points that have been made on international law which is itself based on the Christian theory of Just War, and that has been said very eloquently. But I want to pick up a couple of points – first is, it has been said, quite rightly, that there is as much risk in inaction as there is in action. But as in a conflict in another part of the world, a civil conflict in which I was mediating some years ago, a general said to me “we have to learn that there are intermediate steps between being in barracks and opening fire”. And the reality is that until we are sure that all those intermediate steps have been pursued, Just War theory says that the step of opening fire is one that must only be taken when there is no possible alternative whatsoever, under any circumstances. Because, as the noble Lord Lord Alli just said very clearly and very eloquently, the consequences are totally out of our hands once it has started. And some consequences we can predict – we’ve heard already about the Lebanon and about Iran, particularly the effect that an intervention would cause on the new government in Iran as it is humiliated by such an intervention.

But there is a further point, talking to a very senior Christian leader in the region yesterday, he said “intervention from abroad will declare open season on the Christian communities”. They have already been devastated, 2 million Christians in Iraq 12 years ago, less than half a million today. These are churches that don’t just go back to St Paul but, in the case of Damascus and Antioch, predate him. They will surely suffer terribly (as they already are) if action goes ahead. And that consequence has to be weighed against the consequences of inaction. In civil wars, those who are internal to the civil conflict fight for their lives, necessarily. Those who are external have a responsibility, if they get involved at all, to fight for the outcome, and that outcome must be one which improves the chances of long term peace and reconciliation. If we take action that diminishes the chance of peace and reconciliation, when inevitably a political solution has to be found, whether it’s near term or in the long term future, then we will have contributed to more killing and this war will be deeply unjust.

In consequence my Lords, I feel that any intervention must be effective in terms of preventing any further use of chemical weapons. I’ve not yet heard that that has been adequately demonstrated as likely. That it must effectively deal with those who are promoting the use of chemical weapons. And it must have a third aim which is:  somewhere in the strategy, there must be more chance of a Syria and a Middle East in which there are not millions of refugees and these haunting pictures are not the stuff of our evening viewing.