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More Than Words Required to Make Responsibility to Protect a Reality

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I'm going to start this speech off in an unusual way - by quoting some lyrics in rock band Extreme's biggest hit - MORE THAN WORDS: "More than words is all you have to do to make it real".

To misquote the Bible...justice cannot live by words alone. The most important words in history are those in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, unequivocally: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person".

To say 'I love you' is meaningless unless we back up sentiment with action not just once, but always. So in international relations, for the words of international law to mean anything, those to whom they apply must know that they carry force.

What is happening in Syria now shows the futility of the words we use to conduct international diplomacy. What is happening now is nothing new. It is commonplace for evil regimes or dictators, which have no democratic legitimacy to first flout and then trample on the words of international law, for they know that the world's response is usually little more than WORDS.

Yet following recent tragedies in Rwanda, Bosnia and elseshere, the international community began developing a doctrine of the Responsibility To Protect (R2P) via the United Nations' International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). Despite the overwhelming moral and practical logic of R2P, action is patchy to say the least.

People assume there is nobility in debating words, in JAW JAW not WAR WAR.
There is not. Dictators have no morality. They subscribe only to Stalin's doctrine 'how many divisions does the pope have?'

Some say - "more JAW JAW less WAR WAR". I say "LESS JAW JAW, more ACTION ACTION".

The civilians of Syria do not want our pity, our expressions of outrage any more than the Kurds in Iraq would have appreciated mere sympathy as the WMDs rained down on them.

Kurdish lessons for Syria are mixed. Against the terrible fact that many thousands died in the genocide, we also witnessed how military intervention can allow human rights to be protected as with the commendable efforts of ex-British prime minster John Major to enforce no-fly zones in Iraq in 1991. At a stroke, words began to have practical and moral meaning.

We in Labour must not hide behind a naïve belief that any western intervention is an imperialist plot. Some on the left are so wedded to this misconception with the tragic result that they end up giving succour to evil fascist tyrants. Socialists once formed brigades to fight fascism in Spain. Now, some devote more energy to arresting Tony Blair than they do to stopping the Slayer of Syria or than they did against the Butcher of Baghdad before him.

I once stood in the garden of a Kurdish minister in the Red Zone in Baghdad as mortars and machine gun fire thundered nearby. A female Iraqi MP said to me that if they, the terrorists, won - we would all be finished. She did not mean only our physical safety in Baghdad. Can it be said that if we allow the human rights and human lives of women, children and freedom-fighters to be snuffed out in Syria, we can remain safe in fortress Britain?

Recognising the genocide vs Kurds is only a retrospective start. The Kurds are now rightly asking for some words from the UK government via an e-petition - they seek official recognition that the crimes against them were genocide. The true power of this petition will be if it helps ensure that such crimes be both prevented and punished.

Human rights do and must trump the rights of so-called Great Powers to veto action to protect their own interests. The responsibility to protect should be enforced. More than words.

The above is an abridged version of a speech I gave at the Kurdistan Regional Government UK Representation's fringe event at the Labour Party Conference, 2 October 2012. Topic of meeting: Responsibility to Protect: Kurdish Lessons for Syria and the Middle East.