Penny For Her Thoughts: ALP Changes Stance On Yemen From Silence To Waffly Garbage


If you’re going to be gutless, why not do it from Opposition? Michael Brull explains.

In response to queries, the Australian Labor Party has released to New Matilda – and apparently no-one else – its statement on the situation on Yemen. It is basically a weak joke.

To recap: the situation in Yemen is catastrophic. After about two years of war, and a year and a half of a blockade imposed on Yemen, most of the population is food insecure. 17 million people are facing severe food insecurity. 6.8 million people are considered by the United Nations to be in a “state of emergency” – just one step short of famine on a five-point scale. Save the Children warns that if urgent action isn’t taken, millions could die.

Before the war, Yemen imported 90 per cent of its food. 80 per cent of its imports went through Hodeida port. On 26 March 2015, a coalition of countries, led by Saudi Arabia, invaded Yemen. In August, Saudi Arabia announced it was imposing a blockade on Hodeida. They proceeded to repeatedly bomb the port and bridge connecting Hodeida to Yemen’s capital.

The Saudi government continues to claim that the port at Hodeida is used by the Houthi rebels as a “military base to import guns and rockets”. They also accuse their critics at UN agencies and other NGOs of relying on Houthi propaganda.

That is, the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen can overwhelmingly be blamed on the Saudi-led coalition that invaded Yemen and presently blockades it.

This matters, because the Saudi coalition depends crucially on Western support. For example, the Obama administration sold the Saudi government some $115 billion in arms. The New York Times reported, “Experts say the coalition would be grounded if Washington withheld its support.”

That is, the war would end tomorrow if the West stopped supporting it.


The ALP on Yemen

In almost exactly two years, the ALP has barely said a single word about the war in Yemen. I looked through the media releases of Tanya Plibersek, and the only comments she made about it were criticising the Iranians for allegedly supporting the Houthis. Not a word about the blockade, or the desperate humanitarian situation.

Deputy Opposition leader for Labor, Tanya Plibersek.
Deputy Opposition leader for Labor, Tanya Plibersek.

Penny Wong, the new Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the ALP, has said nothing at all.

In response to media queries sent to the offices of Plibersek and Wong, I received a response from Stephen Spencer, the media adviser to Wong. He sent me what he said was “Labor’s position on Yemen”.

It read:

“Labor is deeply concerned by the conflict in Yemen and the attacks on civilians, schools and hospitals.

Labor condemns all violence and urges restraint from all parties.

Labor calls on both sides of the Saudi Arabian-Yemeni conflict, the Houthis and the pro-government forces, to de-escalate the conflict and resume negotiations, consistent with UN Security Council resolution 2216.

Labor calls on both sides of the Saudi Arabian-Yemeni conflict to restore peace, security and stability to Yemen and the region.”

That is the only thing they have said about the war on Yemen. They did not release it publicly. The only record of it, until this article, was in the email sent to me.

Perhaps they are embarrassed by the weakness of their release. “Deeply concerned” means nothing. They do not identify who or what has attacked “civilians, schools and hospitals”. They condemn “all violence”, which, by failing to differentiate in any way, renders it effectively meaningless. They call on both sides to “de-escalate the conflict”, which they presumably expect to have no effect. It is likely to have particularly limited effect, given that this call has been solely issued to New Matilda.

The ALP tacitly recognises the Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi as the legitimate president of Yemen, by identifying the invading coalition as the “pro-government forces”, and endorsing negotiations on the basis of a UN Security Council Resolution which endorses Hadi’s government, and imposed sanctions on the Houthis. That is, other than bland diplomatic opposition to attacks by unnamed parties, and telling me and no-one else that they urge “restraint”, the ALP has quietly tilted to the Saudi-led invaders.

An airstrike in Saana, Yemen. (IMAGE: Ibrahem Qasim, Flickr)
An airstrike in Saana, Yemen. (IMAGE: Ibrahem Qasim, Flickr)

Let me recap again. Millions of people might die if nothing is done about the blockade on Yemen. It could be ended tomorrow if Western support for it were withdrawn.

The ALP has changed from its previous stance of complete silence, to empty waffle, and slightly tilting towards the government the Saudi invaders are hoping to restore.

Among the questions I sent to the ALP, I wrote “Do you have any regrets about saying nothing about the war? If famine kills millions of Yemenis because of the blockade, will you regard that as a black mark against your tenure as a foreign affairs spokesperson?” I did not receive any direct responses to any of the questions I asked.

In the email where he sent the ALP’s position, Mr Spencer told me to contact him with any further questions for Wong. I replied within 10 minutes with further questions. That was on Monday last week. I await any further response from him, which I will share with readers if they ever come. I will post those questions below. I suspect the ALP has no intention of answering them.

Indeed, they seem to have no intention of even considering them.


Further questions for Penny Wong’s office:

1) Your statement says nothing at all about any side that might be responsible for any aspects of the suffering in Yemen. Do you intend to comment further on this? Or does the ALP not take a position on that?

2) Your statement says nothing about the blockade. Or the impending famine. Or who might be responsible for the blockade. Do you intend to comment further on this? Or does the ALP not take a position on that?

3) Your statement says nothing about the fact that foreign armies have invaded Yemen. Do you intend to comment on those invading forces? Or does the ALP not take a position on that?

4) Your statement calls on “both sides” to restore peace, security and stability to Yemen and the region. Are both sides equally responsible?

5) Australia has historically been very strongly supportive of the Saudi government. Do you have any criticisms of the Saudi government’s conduct in the war, in relation to any war crimes, the blockade, or the invasion? Or any criticisms of other coalition forces fighting in the war?

6) Australian mercenaries are currently fighting with the Saudi-led coalition. Does Labor take any position about whether that is okay? If they do not condemn the involvement of mercenaries, how does the ALP distinguish them from those fighting for jihadi groups and ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

7) Yemen is on the brink of a famine, which could kill millions of innocent civilians. Does Penny Wong feel any obligation to criticise the invading forces, given that a) it is the Saudi coalition which has imposed the blockade which threatens the famine, and b) that it is backing from the US and the UK which enables the Saudi invasion? If millions of people in Yemen die, will Wong feel any regret that she has not issued a single word of opposition to the blockade, even as it leads to a predicted and predictable catastrophe?

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Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).