Helen Kay (HK): One of the questions that members of UKWILPF are interested in is ‘what is preventing effective intervention in Syria, particularly by the UN?’

Madeleine Rees (MR): The UN is just a creature of its member states, and when member states refuse to agree on things, it becomes dysfunctional. We see that absolutely with the dancing that goes on in the Security Council around Syria, particularly, where everybody has their own dog in the fight and their own particular way of doing things and reasons for doing things. It was absolutely emblematic when the picture of the discussions of what went on in Vienna – there were all these men and one woman and no Syrians. So there you have it – a geo-political struggle, nothing to do with Syria and highly gendered: it is all these boys. And you know, that’s the truth of it. There has been no political will to stop Syria because there has been too many different areas of interest being played out.

It looked as if there was going to be a convergence of interest, once the Russians joined in because Putin needs a way out because he can’t get bogged down there. We had a moment of hope. Last week when I was speaking with the German Foreign Ministry, they told me that the French resolution to the Security Council had within it a prohibition on the use of barrel bombs. We heard that with deep joy. It looked as if finally an end to the biggest causation of people fleeing in Syria. So, if you did that, it would send a very strong message: yes, we are serious about Assad and we are serious about the war crimes being committed and this is part of the process, we are not just going to hit on ISIS.

We thought then that it was the beginning of a better understanding, and it still should be. But then when the resolution finally came out, it had nothing of that in it. And Reaching Critical Will and Rae [Acheson, Director, Reaching Critical Will] in particular, had been stressing that we should improve the language of the Vienna Declaration which was going to be a ceasefire and a prohibition on the use of indiscriminate weapons. What she was saying, and it is absolutely right, we must be calling for the prohibition of ‘explosive weapons in populated areas’. Do not bomb populated areas because you are then killing civilians and automatically committing a war crime. But that has not played out, probably due to Iranian and Russian opposition to such phraseology but it is OK if we can get a ceasefire. If we get a ceasefire, then we get a ceasefire and you don’t need additional ceasefire for particular weapons on top. But the intransigence of the various states is such that it is not happening. The ceasefire that was announced at Vienna, was broken within a week. And that is because, in part, Assad feels emboldened by the support he has got from the Russians and Iran, for sure, and in part because when that happens there are more defections to go and fight for ISIS as they are seen as the only people who could defeat Assad. It becomes a vicious circle.

The thing that the Syrians have told us over and over again is the way to defeat ISIS is not by bombing them, I mean it is not rocket science, as all that does is to increase their coherence. Because it is not coherent, in ISIS, the women who have given us this information, say there are so many internal contradictions, and of course there are, because they are a mish-mash of foreign fighters, local fighters, people of different political persuasions, even if they are Islamic: a lot of them are just men who have fled and boys who have been pushed into joining ISIS as it is the only place to be safe. You get the gun, you get the salary, you get the car and in fact you do quite well because they are funded by oil and, let’s track that, where is that money coming from and going to, we know that there are certain companies in Geneva who are actually funders of the Tory Party, who also participate in that oil trade but it is very, very difficult to expose.

So that funding enables them to keep people in a way that is safer and better than if they are simply part of another opposition group. While the main enemy is Assad, ISIS is not going anywhere. On the contrary, that is fuelled by that argument and also by Islamophobia, because the mantle of ISIL is, for sure, that Europe and the West is Islamophobic and the attack is not on us but an attack on Islam; and they are very good at their propaganda, so people think that. The narratives that come out of Europe now, particularly as a result of the atrocities in Paris there is a lot of Islamophobia. And so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy again, fuelling all the time the conflict, instead of doing what you should be doing which is actually saying that the biggest problem that we’ve got is Saudi Arabia.

There is an Islamic State, it is called Saudi Arabia. ISIS is the wannabe of Saudi Arabia: they do the same things as Saudi does but they get more attention. At the same time as Saudi Arabia were being elected to the Human Rights Council, they were advertising for more executioners because they had too many naughty people that they needed to behead. Unbelievable! And that is the British who are giving them tremendous support for that.

The funding for ISIS is being channelled, for sure, through Saudi businessmen, if not directly from their Government and the Iranians. And all these things which are geo-political structures, geo-political interests, I should say, are the ones that are preventing the (stopping) of the slaughter of Syrians. Everybody’s got a different perspective on how it is to be fixed based on their own interests, not on the interests of the Syrian people; and until we address the interests of the Syrian people, there will not be an end to this conflict. They know how to fix it: they know what needs to happen.

Basically, there has to be a cease-fire, on all sides, even against ISIS, and see what happens, because that is not going to help. Having a holding pattern in the sky to bomb ISIS is not going to help. There are women and children who are non-ISIS affiliates in those areas. Are you going to say that is fine, too? No, it’s not fine. We have to be more intelligent in what we do. So you can’t do that: you should not be doing that.

There has to be a diplomatic solution, using the Security Council and it is interesting that the last resolution was under Article 6. Under Article 6 of Security Council of UN Charter. That does not automatically allow you to use military force. You need Chapter 7 resolution to do that. This was not under Chapter 7 – it just said ‘all measures’ which the French can interpret as they want, as they say it is an act of self-defence – but under article 6, it is practice, custom and practice for states to vote only against the resolution under Chapter 6, only if there vital interests are at stake. So in theory, they should be able to reach consensus around that, which they did. But then we did not get the barrel bombs in.

So why are they not actually playing by the rules of the game, and this is the fundamental problem that we are confronting, all of us right now – since 1948 we’ve had an International Order which has been governed by the rule of law and institutions to implement that rule of law. It started with the Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Human Rights Treaty, on and on; we have gradually being putting this together and interpreting; it is constantly being revised so that it is fit for purpose. It is not perfect. Law is an imperfect tool as it depends on the people who are wielding power to make it happen – we know all this – but there are rules. What has tragically happened ever since the Bush-Blair adventures – we can say, yes, that Reagan and his interventions prior to that in Latin America also violated international law, and they were caught for violating international law by Nicaragua and decisions from ICJ – they chose to ignore it but it was not as dramatic as the invasion of Iraq. And since then we have actually seen international law put on one side or deliberately misinterpreted so that they can pursue their military adventurism, and what we are seeing now are the consequences of that.

Basically if you have a big protector, no one is going to comply with international law. And so we have seen it in relation to the conflict itself, in relation to the conflict in Yemen where there is no Security Council resolution but where Saudi Arabia is committing acts on a par with genocide of Hutus, backed by the Americans, backed by the Europeans, largely. That is all quiet- Iran may have an interest – but it does not matter if we sneak things against international law in Yemen.

So that is a big one. In relation to conflict and acts of aggression, law is not being applied. In terms of international accountability, law is not being applied, and then in terms of protection of refugees, law is not being applied, whether it be looking at the directive from the European Union from 2001 on mass influx and what is supposed to be happening. Only Angela Merkel is adhering to that. Only she is saying ‘this is what we said we would do, and this is what international law demands that we do because it incorporates the Refugee Convention, Human Rights protections, fundamental principles that you do not allow people with well-founded fear of persecution to be sent back, or to drown or to be abandoned – you give them the right to apply for asylum.

HK: Are these national responsibilities?

MR: It is an international responsibility that applies to every State as signatories to Refugee Convention. Turkey is not, which is why no one can get asylum there but they are recognising the need for international protection. So no one gets refugee status in Turkey which is problematic if you want to have a normal life.

HK: The responsibility to provide for refugees. Is there an international organisation that has responsibility for that?

MR: It is national but if they cannot cope then, UNHCR say they have a mandate under international law because the refugee convention is applicable under humanitarian law. So basically the way it works, or should work, is that if a country cannot cope because it does not have the resources, they can ask for assistance and support from UNHCR who should step in and give the assistance needed. That is why it is not working in Europe now because the Europeans are not asking for help. That said, UNHCR are doing very, very little, as far as we saw.

HK: Even in Jordan?

MR: I was talking about Europe, when we talk about Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and the transit through Serbia up to Croatia. It is the Croatian Government that has taken command of the situation, doing a very good job with incredible support of the Croatian people. In Serbia, it is more the civil society organisations that, again, are doing an incredible job. Without them, people would be dying. The Bosnians are coming to help them. It’s wonderful for me having spent so much time involved there to see them, all three helping. The people, as always it is the people.

HK: The newspapers here give the impression that they are being nasty to the refugees?

MR: Of course, you see, the narrative of the Balkans is that it is rough neighbourhood and they are all violent and it is the ancient tribal hatreds that helped to form the narrative that this caused the war in the Balkans in the first place. We forget that there were millions of people on the streets demonstrating to have peace. And they were in the majority. But the media went for the ‘Ancient Tribal Hatreds’ narrative because that is good press – and misunderstood what was happening in the Balkans. That helped to inform the policy decisions of policy makers and before we knew where we were, we were not looking at saving Yugoslavia, we were not listening to the narrative of ordinary people. We helped to create and foment ancient tribal hatreds because we were not paying attention to the truth. And it is the same now.