UK role in Syria air strikes ignites debate on war powers

Prime Minister Theresa May said the decision to carry out air strikes was in Britain’s national interest.
Tuesday 17/04/2018
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May making a statement in the House of Commons in central London on April 16, 2018.  (AFP)
British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement in the House of Commons on April 16, 2018. (AFP)

LONDON - British Prime Minister Theresa May faced two days of tough questioning in parliament over the United Kingdom’s role in air strikes targeting chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

May faced a storm of controversy giving the go-ahead for air strikes without parliamentary approval. Members of parliament scrutinised the scale of a prime minister’s power to order military action without legislative approval.

While a British prime minister has the technical authority to authorise military action without parliamentary consent, it has been an unwritten convention since 2003 that no government would do this without first discussing the issue in the House of Commons.

During an emergency debate called April 17, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for cross-party support for a motion to enforce parliamentary consent for future military action.

“Parliament should have, as an absolute minimum, enshrined in law, the opportunity to ask questions before a government can order planned military action,” Corbyn said.

“There is no more serious issue than sending our armed forces to war. It is right that parliament has the right to support or to stop the government from taking planned military action,” he added during the rowdy debate during which May faced tough questions.

May said her decision was in line with a cabinet manual -- a document that sets out the main laws, rules and conventions -- on the issue.

“In 2011, the government acknowledged that a convention had developed in parliament that before troops were committed the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate the matter and said that it proposed to observe that convention except when there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate,” the government guidelines said.

May said the decision to carry out air strikes was in Britain’s national interest and questions of military strategy could not be discussed before parliament.

Speaking in parliament one day earlier, May said she had no choice but to authorise strikes without parliamentary consent based on the necessity of taking a rapid decision when parliament was in recess.

“Let me be absolutely clear: We have acted because it is in our national interest to do so. It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used,” May asserted.

There was a 6-hour parliamentary session April 16 during which MPs questioned the prime minister’s decision. May avowed there was sufficient evidence to confirm that the Assad regime was behind the chemical weapons attack in Douma and that retaliatory air strikes were “legally right.”

“This was a limited, targeted strike on a legal basis that has been used before and it was a decision that required the evaluation of intelligence and information, much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with parliament,” May said.

She acknowledged that parliament could hold her to account for the decision to participate in air strikes without prior approval, something that has become an unofficial convention since the Blair government secured parliamentary approval to engage in the war on Iraq.

It was the ferocity of the debate surrounding the issue, and whether parliament should have a say on how and when military action is authorised, that led to a second emergency session being called.

The prime minister has the authority to deploy armed forces based on powers known as the “royal prerogative” and there is no obligation, under law, for the government to obtain parliamentary approval for military action.

However, observers said that it has become a constitutional convention -- a political rule lacking direct legal force -- for prime ministers to seek parliamentary approval for military action.

Corbyn explicitly called for a War Powers Act that would limit a government’s ability to launch air strikes without legislative approval.

“I think parliament should have a say in this and I think the prime minister could have quite easily done that,” Corbyn told the BBC. “There is precedent over previous interventions when parliament has had a vote.”

“I think what we need in this country is something more robust like a War Powers Act so governments do get held to account by parliament for what they do in our name.”

Many MPs publicly stated they would have voted in favour of strikes had the issue been held to a vote. They also, however, sought assurances from May that no further military action would be authorised without parliamentary approval.

“I regret that were wasn’t a parliamentary vote on this issue but I wish to tell the prime minister and the house that she would have had my vote had I been asked to give it,” Labour MP Jess Phillips said during the parliamentary session April 16.

The April 17 parliamentary session ended with MPs voting on a motion to ensure parliamentary authorisation for future military action. The government easily won the vote, with 317 in favour and 256 against.