To Be Taken Seriously, Open Labour Needs to Do Much, Much Better on Yemen

by David Wearing

15 December 2020

A man walks down a bombed-out street in Sa'ada, Yemen.
Philippe Kropf/OCHA, Flickr

The debate over the future of the Labour party’s foreign policy has begun. Last week, the soft left grouping Open Labour published a pamphlet entitled A Progressive Foreign Policy for New Times, with a foreword co-written by Alex Sobel MP and the respected academic Mary Kaldor. The document’s launch event featured Sobel and shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, in a significant show of support from senior party figures.

Co-sponsored by the Labour Campaign for International Development, the 29-page document reviews the party’s recent record, and proposes a way forward, purportedly rooted in the principles of humanitarian internationalism. So it was both striking and deeply troubling to see one issue conspicuous for its near total absence from the pamphlet: the war in Yemen.

Yemen is the scene of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and Britain has played a major role in creating it. All parties to the country’s six-year conflict have routinely violated international law, the leading culprit being a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, whose war effort is sustained by the US and the UK.

The Saudi coalition has carried out widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets, from hospitals and clinics to schools, homes, weddings and funerals. That bombing is responsible for most of the violent deaths in the war, while a coalition blockade is the primary cause of the collapse of Yemen’s economy. As a result, an estimated 85,000 infants have already died of starvation or preventable disease. The lives of another 100,000 children are now hanging by a thread, as the situation nosedives at the end of 2020.

UN experts have warned that the Saudis’ western backers could be complicit in war crimes, to the extent that starvation is deliberately being used as a war tactic. In 2016, US State Department lawyers warned that Obama administration officials could be charged with war crimes for the sustenance they were providing to the Saudi bombing campaign. Such guilt would certainly extend to the British government.

Here is the crucial point: the Saudi air force is operationally dependent on Washington and London. Its warplanes rely on spare parts, maintenance and ammunition that only the British and Americans can provide. A fleet of Eurofighter Typhoons, sold to Riyadh by the last Labour government, plays a central role in the war.

In terms of human cost and degree of complicity, Yemen is the most consequential issue in British foreign policy since the Iraq war. All the leading humanitarian and human rights NGOs are demanding that London immediately pull the plug on its support for the Saudis. Echoing and amplifying that demand could not be more urgent. Lives literally depend on us doing so.

And yet Open Labour’s foreign policy pamphlet devotes a grand total of two-and-a-bit sentences on page 15 to the subject of Yemen. Worse still, the thrust of this brief passage is to downplay British culpability, and to chide the socialist left for focusing on it.

So this “progressive foreign policy” has nothing to say on how we might pressure the government to end its enabling of Saudi war crimes. No thoughts are offered on how to ensure that Britain is never again complicit in using the starvation of children as a strategy of war. And no effort is made to reflect on Labour’s specific role in providing a fleet of warplanes that have been pulverising Yemen indiscriminately for nearly six years.

Such a dismissive treatment of Yemen encapsulates the problems with the broader argument Open Labour’s document advances. That argument has two key components. First, that the anti-imperialist left is too focused on the West, and not on the crimes of others. Second, that Labour needs to rehabilitate the “humanitarian interventionism” and associated forms of power projection which characterised the party’s last period in government.

On the first point, although it is banal to say that other states have agency and are also guilty of bad conduct, the pamphlet’s authors treat it as some sort of eureka moment. The practical question – if our humanitarian internationalism is serious rather than performative – is what concretely can we do about humanitarian issues? On this question, those of us located in the British polity have very specific responsibilities.

Take the most urgent example. If British progressives united to make the political costs of supporting Saudi Arabia prohibitive, the removal of that support would seriously impede the war effort of the worst killer in the conflict. That would save lives immediately, and would also force a de-escalation which could push the war closer to a negotiated settlement, if coupled with the right forms of diplomacy. Here and in many other cases, we have a unique and powerful form of leverage when it comes to British power, and therefore a responsibility to its victims to focus on it. That is what internationalist solidarity means, in practical terms.

The second component of the pamphlet’s argument – the rehabilitation of Blair-style interventionism – virtually requires the case of Yemen to be downplayed and misrepresented. Jingoistic notions of Western power as a fundamentally benign force for good in the world cannot be squared with the hard reality of what Western powers have done to the people of Yemen. Here, what the pamphlet deals in is a liberal version of nationalistic dogma, not humanitarian internationalism. Another Britain may be possible – but only by confronting, not evading, the reality of what it is right now.

It is unclear why Open Labour commissioned two academic experts in employment studies to write a document on foreign policy. Perhaps the authors were selected on the basis of political fit rather than any particular knowledge or expertise on the subject, but the sheer superficiality of their argumentation is excruciating at times. A search of Open Labour’s website returns zero mentions of Yemen in the five years since the group was established, indicating that a lack of seriousness around foreign policy is a running theme.

This is a shame, because the wider soft left is typically characterised by a sincere humanitarianism and sense of international solidarity. Socialists and the soft left may often disagree on these matters, but there remains scope for constructive dialogue and collaborative work on many issues, including Yemen. The pamphlet’s frequent descent into petty factional score-settling in the post-Corbyn environment should not be allowed to obscure real possibilities for productive cooperation.

What socialists can bring to this conversation is an account of British power in the world which understands how it is shaped by the formative centuries of empire, the interests it serves today, and the ideological discourses that legitimise it. The UK’s behaviour in relation to Yemen is sadly far from aberrational. A structural analysis of British foreign relations can help us make concrete sense of where that behaviour comes from, and what we can do to address it. Within this intellectual tradition, it is always possible to critique specific flawed positions taken up by specific anti-imperialists, as the Lebanese academic Gilbert Achcar has shown in the case of Syria.

In economic, military and diplomatic terms, the UK remains one of the top half-dozen powers in the international system. To be a citizen of such a country, let alone a member of one of its two parties of government, is to bear a considerable degree of responsibility toward many others around the world. Doubtless Open Labour is capable of making some serious contributions on these matters. But it will have to do much better than this.

David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a Novara Media columnist. He is the author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain.

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