Hilary Benn Speech Defending Syria Airstrikes And Condemning 'Evil' ISIS Praised For 'Eloquent And Poetic' Delivery

02/12/2015 22:45 | Updated 03 December 2015

Hilary Benn has given one of the most celebrated speeches witnessed in Parliament in many years as the Shadow Foreign Secretary made the case for UK airstrikes in Syria to confront the “evil” of ISIS extremists.

The Labour MP drew applause - normally banned in the House of Commons - as he urged backbenchers to defy party leader Jeremy Corbyn and extend a bombing campaign from Iraq to northern Syria.

"We are here faced by fascists - not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber - they hold us in contempt," Mr Benn said in speech he wrote in the Commons chamber that had most MPs entranced.

"They hold our values in contempt, they hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt, they hold our democracy - the means by which we will make our decision tonight - in contempt. But what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.”

He went on: "My view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion tonight."

His address was already eagerly-anticipated since he was speaking from the Despatch Box hours after Mr Corbyn had made the opposite case - condemning airstrikes - at the start of the marathon 10-plus hour debate.

The highly unusual arrangement reflected the division at the heart of the Labour Party, underlined by 11 members of the Shadow Cabinet - including Mr Benn, deputy leader Tom Watson - voted in opposition to Mr Corbyn after he was forced to grant a “free vote”.

The "eloquent and poetic" speech garnered huge support from MPs from across the political spectrum and journalists. Some pointed out how the speech reflected Labour’s internationalist history and made a powerful case for intervention, and contrasted to Mr Corbyn’s anti-war rhetoric favoured by the hard left.

Others made comparisons to the speech his late father, Tony Benn, gave in 1992 after the first Gulf War.

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Speech in full:

We have had an intense and impassioned debate, and rightly so given the clear and present threat from Daesh, the gravity of the decision that rests on the shoulders and the conscience of every single one of us, and the lives that we hold in our hands tonight. Whatever decision we reach, I hope that we will treat one another with respect.

The question that confronts us in a very complex conflict is, at its heart, very simple. What should we do with others to confront this threat to our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer under the cruel yoke of Daesh? The carnage in Paris brought home to us the clear and present danger that we face from Daesh. It could just as easily have been London, Glasgow, Leeds, or Birmingham and it could still be. I believe that we have a moral and practical duty to extend the action that we are already taking in Iraq to Syria. I am also clear - and I say this to my colleagues - that the conditions set out in the emergency resolution passed at the Labour party conference in September have been met. We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council resolution 2249, paragraph 5 of which specifically calls on member states:

“To take all necessary measures…to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL… and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.”

The United Nations is asking us to do something; it is asking us to do something now; it is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq.

It was a Labour Government who helped to found the United Nations at the end of the Second World War. Why did we do so? It was because we wanted the nations of the world working together to deal with threats to international peace and security, and Daesh is unquestionably that. Given that the United Nations has passed this resolution, and that such action would be lawful under article 51 of the UN charter - because every state has the right to defend itself - why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations, particularly when there is such support from within the region, including from Iraq? We are part of a coalition of more than 60 countries, standing together shoulder to shoulder to oppose the ideology and brutality of Daesh.

We all understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war, and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. Those are our best hope of achieving a ceasefire - now that would bring an end to Assad’s bombing - leading to a transitional Government and elections. That is vital, both because it would help in the defeat of Daesh and because it would enable millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee to do what every refugee dreams of - they just want to be able to go home.

No one in the debate doubts the deadly serious threat that we face from Daesh and what it does, although we sometimes find it hard to live with the reality. In June, four gay men were thrown off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. In August, the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra, Professor Khaled al-Asaad, was beheaded, and his headless body was hung from a traffic light. In recent weeks, mass graves in Sinjar have been discovered, one said to contain the bodies of older Yazidi women murdered by Daesh because they were judged too old to be sold for sex. Daesh has killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia; 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane; 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruç; 130 people in Paris, including those young people in the Bataclan, whom Daesh, in trying to justify its bloody slaughter, called apostates engaged in prostitution and vice. If it had happened here they could have been our children.

Daesh is plotting more attacks, so the question for each of us and for our national security is this: given that we know what it is doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in self-defence against those who are planning these attacks? Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security? If we do not act, what message will that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much, including Iraq and our ally, France? France wants us to stand with it, and President Hollande, the leader of our sister Socialist party, has asked for our assistance and help. As we are undertaking airstrikes in Iraq, where Daesh’s hold has been reduced, and as we are doing everything but engaging in airstrikes in Syria, should we not play our full part?

It has been argued in the debate that airstrikes achieve nothing. Not so: the House should look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq. It will remember that 14 months ago, people were saying that it was almost at the gates of Baghdad, which is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi Government’s request for help to defeat it. Its military capacity and freedom of movement have been put under pressure. Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobane. Of course, airstrikes alone will not defeat Daesh, but they make a difference, because they give it a hard time, making it more difficult for it to expand its territory. I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today acts with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh, which targets innocent people.

On the subject of ground troops to defeat Daesh, there has been much debate about the figure of 70,000, and the Government must explain that better. But we know that most of those troops are engaged in fighting President Assad. I will tell Members what else we know: whatever the number - 70,000, 40,000, 80,000 - the current size of the opposition forces means that the longer we leave it to take action, the longer Daesh will have to decrease that number. So to suggest that airstrikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war has come to an end is to miss the urgency of the terrorist threat that Daesh poses to us and others, and to misunderstand the nature and objectives of the extension to airstrikes that is proposed.

Of course we should take action - there is no contradiction between the two - to cut off Daesh’s support in the form of money, fighters and weapons, of course we should give humanitarian aid, of course we should offer shelter to more refugees, including in this country, and yes, we should commit to play our full part in helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over.

I accept that there are legitimate arguments, and we have heard them in the debate, for not taking this form of action now. It is also clear that many Members have wrestled and, who knows, in the time that is left may still be wrestling with their conscience about what is the right thing to do. But I say the threat is now and there are rarely, if ever, perfect circumstances in which to deploy military forces.

We heard powerful testimony earlier from the honourable member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) when she quoted that passage. Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan Regional Government High Representative in London, said last week:
“Last June, Daesh captured one third of Iraq overnight and a few months later attacked the Kurdistan Region. Swift airstrikes by Britain, America and France and the actions of our own Peshmerga saved us... We now have a border of 650 miles with Daesh. We have pushed them back and recently captured Sinjar ...Again Western airstrikes were vital. But the old border between Iraq and Syria does not exist. Daesh fighters come and go across this fictional boundary.”

That is the argument for treating the two countries as one if we are serious about defeating Daesh.

I hope the House will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues. As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. We are faced by fascists - not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this Chamber tonight and all the people we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy - the means by which we will make our decision tonight—in contempt.

What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. It is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists, trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. My view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. That is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.


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