Ye­men drift­ing closer to edge

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Azad Essa is a jour­nal­ist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox AZAD ESSA

THERE are some things I will never un­der­stand. Per­haps, pin it down to naivety, in­ex­pe­ri­ence or a lack of fa­mil­iar­ity with the cor­ri­dors of power. Help me un­der­stand this: on Novem­ber 5, Houthi rebels, who took over the cap­i­tal, Sana’a, and de­posed Pres­i­dent Abd-Rabbu Man­sour Hadi in 2015, fired a mis­sile to­wards Riyadh’s in­ter­na­tional air­port. It was in­ter­cepted by the US-built Pa­triot Mis­sile De­fence Sys­tem.

No one died, no one was hurt. The mis­sile never landed.

On Novem­ber 8, South Africa’s De­part­ment of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions and Co-op­er­a­tion (Dirco), is­sued a state­ment: “This at­tack ap­pears to sig­nify an es­ca­la­tion of the con­flict in Ye­men to an ex­tra-ter­ri­to­rial con­flict with the po­ten­tial to desta­bilise the re­gion.

“South Africa calls on all coun­tries in the re­gion to ex­er­cise re­straint in its re­sponse to the in­ci­dent and not al­low provoca­tive acts such as this to spread the con­flict be­yond Ye­men.”

The state­ment then went on into that ster­ile space of all state­ments in which the gov­ern­ment ex­pressed “grave con­cern about the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis” and urged par­ties “to al­low un­hin­dered dis­tri­bu­tion of hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­plies to all af­fected civil­ians in Ye­men and com­ply with their obli­ga­tions un­der in­ter­na­tional law, in­clud­ing in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian law and in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights law as ap­pli­ca­ble”.

Here is the thing: if Dirco were is­su­ing state­ment af­ter state­ment about end­ing hos­til­i­ties in Ye­men, or rais­ing ques­tions about the hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions since the con­flict be­gan in 2015, it would make some sense, given that a mis­sile geared for the Saudi cap­i­tal is no small deal.

But when that is the first pub­lic state­ment the de­part­ment has ut­tered about Ye­men this year, one has to won­der what is go­ing on.

Ye­men is en­dur­ing one of the most dev­as­tat­ing con­flicts of the cen­tury. An im­pov­er­ished Arab coun­try is be­ing pounded by a wave of bomb­ings by a coali­tion of armies, led by Saudi Ara­bia.

More than 10 000 peo­ple have been killed, a mil­lion oth­ers are strug­gling with cholera (of which 2 000 peo­ple have died) and the coun­try’s in­fra­struc­ture has all but col­lapsed.

The Saudi-coali­tion (which in­cluded Qatar un­til the spat in the mid­dle of this year) has bom­barded the coun­try since 2015 in a war whose le­gal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is in dis­pute.

In 2015, Houthi rebels, seen as prox­ies of Iran, en­tered Sana’a and the port of Aden in the south. The Houthis have been dis­placed from the im­por­tant port of Aden but re­main in charge of Sana’a and north­ern ar­eas of the coun­try.

Like all con­flicts in the Mid­dle East, the coali­tion is backed by the US and other Western he­roes de­ter­mined to ex­er­cise force in the re­al­i­sa­tion of demo­cratic val­ues or the pro­tec­tion of monar­chi­cal lead­er­ship (th­ese are of­ten in­ter­change­able de­pend­ing on who is fi­nanc­ing the con­flict).

Ev­ery­one from the UN, Ox­fam and dozens of other aid groups have cau­tioned that a ma­jor catas­tro­phe is un­fold­ing in Ye­men, but th­ese re­main terse warn­ings on a page or news bytes, when the story has seen some cov­er­age.

And yet, cov­er­age has not matched the scale of dam­age or con­se­quences to life and prop­erty. An en­tire coun­try is tee­ter­ing closer to the edge, and here we are, stand­ing still, look­ing the other way.

But back to that state­ment from our brave diplo­mats at Dirco.

Just be­fore the rocket was launched from Ye­men into Saudi Ara­bia, two things hap­pened. First, Saad Hariri sub­mit­ted his res­ig­na­tion as the prime min­is­ter of Lebanon while on a trip to Saudi Ara­bia.

The next day, the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment sent a ca­ble to all its em­bassies through­out the world ask­ing its diplo­mats to in­flu­ence their hosts into sup­port­ing Saudi’s war against the Houthis and to em­pha­sise that Iran was en­gaged in re­gional sub­ver­sion.

Any­one fol­low­ing de­vel­op­ments, ten­sion and the soap opera that is the Mid­dle East, would know that Saudi Ara­bia and Is­rael have been work­ing in tan­dem in a bid to un­der­mine Iran and Hezbol­lah. The ca­ble merely pro­vides proof.

Is it then a co­in­ci­dence that two days af­ter the Is­raelis were told to lobby their hosts whereever they are, Dirco is­sued a state­ment con­demn­ing the mis­sile launched into Saudi? I think not. I reached out to the Dirco spokesper­son to find out more and was met, as usual, with si­lence. It is hard to un­der­stand why we pay for spokesper­sons whose job is to seem­ingly never speak. But I di­gress.

I can un­der­stand that our for­eign pol­icy is obliged to show­case some strate­gic im­pe­tus. The na­ture of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and diplo­macy of­ten re­volves around “in­ter­ests”.

Is it in our in­ter­est to do or say some­thing that might ul­ti­mately dam­age our chances of “a con­tract” or “an op­por­tu­nity” or a way of “mov­ing for­ward” with “our agenda”.

We have to work in the real world with al­lies and part­ners, who might be smart but flawed, ide­o­log­i­cally sound but ruth­less.

But when it comes to is­sues of life, death, mass mur­der and geno­cide, surely we ought to be able to take a stand? Or is that ask­ing too much?

For some rea­son or an­other, Dirco needed to con­demn that mis­sile and show­case some sup­port for Saudi Ara­bia. In so do­ing, we il­lus­trated that though we might not be pulling the trig­ger, we are cer­tainly com­plicit in the skul­dug­gery un­fold­ing in places like Ye­men.

Like most of our gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, Dirco is rud­der­less and soul­less; and it’s time to know why.

We es­pouse an anti-im­pe­rial agenda but show time and again, that we are un­will­ing to re­spect peo­ple who are at the heart of coun­ter­ing an em­pire.

We have long lost the re­spect of oth­ers. Soon there will be noth­ing left to re­spect in our­selves.

Yet we’re look­ing the other way when it comes to this mass mur­der and geno­cide. Shouldn’t we take a stand?


HU­MAN­I­TAR­IAN CRI­SIS: Ye­me­nis present doc­u­ments for food ra­tions in Sana’a, Ye­men. More than 10 000 peo­ple have been killed in one of the most dev­as­tat­ing con­flicts of the cen­tury.

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