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CCADD Open Meeting, 27.11.01


The meeting was chaired by the CCADD president, Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford.

The panel of speakers included: Sir Hugh Beach (former Master-General of the Ordnance), Baroness Shirley Williams (leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords), Col. Michael Dewar (former Deputy Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies) and Dr. Vivienne Nathanson (in charge of ethics at the British Medical Association, and an expert on biological weapons). Because of House of Lords Business, Baroness Williams was unavoidably late, and Sir Hugh Beach volunteered to open the discussion with some thoughts of his own. Baroness Williams made her contribution later in the evening.

Sir Hugh Beach began by recalling a discussion with some Israelis about their response to a suicide bombing. The Israelis had used tanks, helicopters and F15 fighter aircraft: a completely inappropriate tactic. The British had used far better methods in dealing with terrorism in Malaya and elsewhere: basing their strategy on good intelligence, the use of infantry on the ground and above all on winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population. This was a long, slow and painful process. The Israeli defence of their methods was that they had only a conscript, not a professional army and therefore no alternative. Yet they had been involved in counter-terrorism for 25 years! They had been very successful in conducting mobile desert wars: but dealing with suicide bombers was a completely different sort of challenge. The same could be said of the American response to the events of September 11, 2001: i.e. bombing the Afghan infrastructure with C130’s, B52’s and ‘dumb’ bombs. (This method had worked to some extent in Bosnia: the air campaign had worked in support of the KLA. But only once there were infantry on the ground). Until US ground forces were inserted into Afghanistan as forward ‘spotters’ directing the targeting, the bombs were simply making the rubble bounce.

Sir Hugh Beach then went on to justify a policy of assassinating the terrorist leaders where possible (a policy also being conducted by the Israelis against leading Palestinian ‘terrorists’). Here he referred to a CCADD paper on ‘Just Assassination’ which he had written in conjunction with David Fisher, now available on the CCADD website. Assassination was legally permissible provided it was done in self-defence, not as revenge. (The speakers left David Fisher, who was present at the meeting, to deal with the ethical aspects of the issue. Present laws did not adequately deal with the issue). Self-defence assassination of Al Quaida leaders could be legally justified in view of the open threats of extreme indiscriminate violence already made by them against innocents. Given the impossibility of separating Al Quaida from the Taliban in Afghanistan (Al Quaida provide the Taliban with their best fighters and much of their money) assassination of Taliban leaders would also be justified on self-defence grounds. (At this point the Chairman pointed out that Thomas Aquinas had objected to assassination).

Col. Michael Dewar said it was hard to disagree with the previous speaker, especially on the difference between the effective methods used by the British, in Borneo, Malaya etc. and the ineffective methods used by Israel. Understanding the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local populations was the key here. Generally speaking, counter-terrorism had to avoid use of overwhelming destructive firepower: rather it had to use the same sorts of weapons as the terrorists. However aerial bombing had worked spectacularly in Afghanistan once the Taliban had decided to dig-in around cities, in trenches etc., because they then made themselves targets which could be hit. Col Dewar then went on to justify taking the ‘military route’ in response to the September 11th events. He pointed out:

  1. September 11th was only a catalyst, and indiscriminate attacks had been mounting for some years, as witness bombing the US embassies in Africa, the US destroyer Aden harbour, and attacks on US airlines in the Far East, luckily foiled at the last minute.
  2. London had been a hotbed of extremist groups for ten years or so, pumping out propaganda to the media and using the financial facilities of the City;
  3. We were dealing with fanatics, or ‘zealots’, willing to use Nuclear, Chemical and Biological weapons if available to them.


However, taking the military route raised difficult questions, concerning:

  1. limits on civil liberties (as in World War II), especially where existing law cannot cope, e.g. on fanning religious hatred. Were we in UK too worried about this? How far should we fear this development?
  2. the danger of imposing Western standards, e.g. of law (the Geneva Convention etc.) on people who could not be expected to abide by them. Col Dewar mentioned that he had experience of life in Pakistan and the Gulf, and went on to note a degree of welcome ‘realism’ about this issue even in today’s Guardian newspaper (27 November 2001).


Dr. Vivienne Nathanson reminded the meeting of work done earlier by the BMA on medical aspects of warfare. In 1983 a report had been published on the medical effects of nuclear war, which pointed out that the medical profession could not plan for the results of nuclear war in the UK. The BMA had also studied landmines, blinding laser weapons etc. and the injuries they inflict (defined as ‘superfluous’ or excessive by the laws of war). In February 1999 the BMA had pointed out that biological weapons were likely to be used in the 21st century.


Biological weapons are already banned by treaty (the Biological Weapons Convention) Dr. Nathanson said. But law on its own seldom prevents the use of any weapon. There are two difficulties in using BW:

  1. growing the organisms in sufficient volume without killing the growers, and
  2. dispersing them to produce lethal effects. Biotechnology can help overcome both, making the manufacture and use of BW easier, cheaper and safer. A biological weapon does not have to be ‘exploded’ at a distance from the terrorist if he is willing to commit suicide in the attempt, e.g. by infecting himself. What then is to be done? i) Disaster planning is needed, both by stockpiling vaccines (the current stock of smallpox vaccine is old: hence the US work presently going on to up-date it) and drugs. But these measures are useless if confined to one country: global measures are needed to stop epidemics spreading. ii) there has to be effective verification of the biological weapons convention (currently opposed by the USA).


The subsequent discussion


David Fisher intervened to point out the ethical case for ‘just assassination’. There was no question of justifying assassination simply on grounds of disapproval of a tyrant’s views (e.g.. the attempts to kill Castro, or the Archduke Ferdinand were quite unjustifiable). Assassination was justified only in self-defence, and even then all the just war criteria had to be met. Thomas Aquinas would have agreed with this. Michael Dewar noted that on this basis the killing of three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar was ‘just’.


Tony Kempster questioned the Afghan campaign on grounds of proportionality, especially in view of the wholesale slaughter of prisoners of war near Masar el Sherif. Sir Hugh Beach answered that the prisoners had clearly forfeited their PoW rights under the Geneva Convention, by their armed uprising’. In reply to the claim that helicopter gunships had been called in to quell the prisoners’ revolt Michael Dewar said that 90% of the slaughter had been done by the Northern Alliance forces, and that only ‘smart bombs’ had been used from the air.


Mike Elliott wondered how it was possible for those with ‘Western Eyes’ to enter into the ‘hearts and minds’ of would-be suicides, who see rewards in the world to come as the best option.


Michael Bartlett asked:

  1. has the UK declared war on Afghanistan? for if not, what was the legal basis of the UK intervention (as distinct from that of the USA trying to apprehend a criminal)?; and
  2. were the staffs of Afghanistan embassies the same as they were before the ‘war’ began? Sir Hugh Beach replied that no war of any kind had been declared since 1939. But the Geneva Convention still applied even when no declaration had been made. The legal basis of the UK action was that allies could choose to take part (cf. the NATO treaty Art. 5), and in any case the UN had said resolved that here was a breach of international peace and security. Embassy staffs had probably changed sides anyway. (Bob Beresford from the floor pointed out that only three governments had recognised the Taliban).


The representative from the Centre for Defence Studies asked what measures were being taken to help health workers to react properly to terrorism. Dr. Nathanson answered that in the UK the police were the primary agency responsible for such matters. Disaster plans were organised at the local level. Because of September 11th, plans were being worked out to cope with BW or CW attacks. The Tokyo subway precedent had to be taken into account. In the case of BW the problem is to predict which agent is likely to be used. We have to be rational: not every eventuality can be accommodated. For example, pneumonia is the most common cause of death following a BW attack, but it is clearly impossible to provide adequate amounts of the very expensive equipment need to cope with pneumonia on the mass scale expected to follow on a large BW attack. Because of the delay in contagion becoming apparent, a huge tracking system would have to be put in place (as is being done now in the USA). It is also necessary to have a built-in level of redundancy among personnel. In New York, key figures in the public health field were themselves casualties of the World Trade Centre disaster.


David Hills commented, from his own experience in intelligence, that the Israeli’s always insisted that they could not afford a long war of attrition: hence their past tactics. He also wondered if it was right to try to get rid of terrorist cells from e.g. London. Might it not be better to keep them in place so that a watch could be kept on them? Michael Dewar added at this point that intelligence work had become too reliant on technical means.


At this point in the discussion Baroness Shirley Williams arrived, and was asked for her comments.


Shirley Williams began by saying that just after September 11 she was lecturing at Notre Dame University. The University immediately offered a requiem mass for the New York victims. Subsequently the students had a very serious, and not at all revengeful discussion of the morality of retaliation. She went on to say that the original Afghan campaign had two ‘tracks’: a) identifying and destroying the Al Quaida terrorist camps, and b) providing humanitarian aid and dealing with the roots of terrorism. Unfortunately, when things become difficult in any campaign, the military imperatives tend to take over, and the other elements are lost. At present, the Pentagon dominates the campaign, and offers of help by America’s allies are being spurned (e.g. offers of French, German, Italian and now even British help). The danger is that the coalition of the willing will get tangled up in American priorities. Bin Laden should be regarded as a criminal, as the terrorist leaders in Rwanda were. This would help to keep the coalition together. But the USA had instead been trying to topple the Taliban rather than targeting the terrorists (though this tendency was just now being put right).


It is a mistake to talk of terrorism in the language of military power. Terrorism is a kind of ‘cancer’; and we need a language of religion, spirituality, and psychology to deal with the ‘fundamentalist’ challenge.

We need to talk of human beings in their fullness, not just concentrating on ‘military man’ or ‘economic man’ . The bad way to proceed will be to take military measures against terrorism in other states without any clear link to the New York events. Attacking Iraq (for example) would lack legal justification, and be seen simply as a war of the rich against the poor. In Britain we would find ourselves defending the indefensible. A better way would be to follow Gordon Brown’s recipe for relieving the debt burden on the poorest countries, and increasing international aid to a target of 1% of GDP. Without this there will be just the humiliation and marginalisation of the Muslim poor by Christians.


At this point Owen Hardwicke warmly welcomed the tone of Shirley Williams’s remarks. He then went on the point out that ‘self-defence’ is not a just war ‘criterion’. In saying this he was not being ‘anti-American’.


The Chairman, Richard Harries, intervened to say that he thought, despite what had been already said, the case for taking the ‘military route’ had not been adequately made out. A CCADD vice-president (Sir Michael Howard) had said as much in his RUSI speech. ‘Hearts and minds’ had not been mobilised in a long-term strategy like that of e.g. Malaya. Michael Dewar’s answer to this charge was that Britain had the ‘luxury’ of 15 years to deal with the Malayan insurgency. This was not the case with the September 11th events. Al Quaida have the capacity to kill huge numbers very quickly, unlike the Malayan terrorists. So the military option was justified, and was likely to save lives in the end. Sir Hugh Beach added that he originally had thought the right answer in Afghanistan was to flood the country with food: but he had now changed his mind.


Vivienne Nathanson at this point took the opportunity to criticise terms like ‘surgical strike’ and ‘collateral damage’ as being fundamentally dishonest. Shirley Williams agreed with this comment. She went on to say that treating terrorism as a crime meant having an international armed police force and an international court at which to try the accused.. The proposed US tribunals to try bin Laden and the Al Quaida, with their restrictions on mounting a proper defence, and with the death penalty at the end, would automatically make the terrorists into ‘martyrs’. But genuine martyrs were never suicidal. Further it was important to ask why the 5000 or so victims of terrorism at Srebrenica were not being mentioned alongside the victims in New York. Brian Wicker then asked how were the international police force and the criminal court (opposed by the USA) to be created? Sir Hugh Beach thought that the SAS already formed the kernel of such a force, and expected American opposition to the ICC to fall away in the not too distant future. Michael Dewar thought that the British army had a unique role to play here because of its professionalism and experience in dealing with the retreat from empire (experience not matched by that of the Dutch at Srebrenica, or indeed the Americans). If asked, the SAS could successfully ‘snatch’ Karadic and Mladic from their hideouts in the Balkans.


Peter Bishop said that no religion was fully self-consistent: every one had good and bad aspects, and texts to support both. Herbert Butterfield was right to say that wars waged for principles were worse than wars waged for territory or limited objectives. Shirley Williams accepted the point, but said that in a few cases one could point to good uses of force used for principles. She cited the Australian action in East Timor as an example: the lesson of Srebrenica had been learnt there. (Like the British, the Australian had a very good professional army). She went on to suggest that the ‘Westphalian’ system of nation states was now dying. The European Union was responsible for having made war impossible in Europe. What we now need is a global solution. Unfortunately, the USA is still wedded to its sovereignty as a Westphalian state, although September 11th was beginning to show the weaknesses of this stance.


The Chairman now called for a summing-up by the panellists.


Vivienna Nathanson remarked on the futility of revenge. She had personally encountered people in the USA who preached the healing effect of the death penalty on the relatives of the victims of murderers. It never works. She knew people who had found that only forgiveness, not revenge, helps people to recover. It was right that the ICC would have no power to inflict a death sentence.


Michael Dewar agreed that the EU was a good thing, but it was democracy that stopped states from going to war. Ad hoc alliances were the best way forward in the international arena just now. The UN had ‘let us down’.


Shirley Williams disagreed. She pointed out that the EU began with the ‘European Coal and Steel Community’. specifically designed to prevent the key industries of war and arms manufacturing from being put to violent use in Europe. The sovereign states had let the UN down, not the other way round. (American refusal to pay their dues was a case in point, as too was the case of ‘lending’ incompetent Ukrainian soldiers to the UN simply so they could be paid). However, it was right that states had to become democracies before they could join the EU (the Colonels Greece, Franco’s Spain).


It being 20.30, Richard Harries brought the meeting to a close, by thanking the panellists and everyone who had taken part. All agreed that it been a very fruitful and educational discussion. Brian Wicker reminded those attending that Sir Michael Howard’s RUSI talk, and the paper on ‘Just Assassination’ were now on the CCADD website ( He encouraged all those interested to continue the discussion electronically by contacting CCADD by email. He also hoped this report of the meeting would be on the website shortly.