11th February 2024 – (Sanaa) In the shadow of global unease, the waters of the Red Sea—a vital artery pulsing with the lifeblood of international trade—have turned turbulent with the whisper of missiles and the menace of military intervention. The recent Anglo-American airstrikes on Houthi rebel targets in Yemen have stirred a tempest of legal ambiguity and geopolitical risk, pushing the boundaries of international law and straining the sinews of global commerce.
The strikes, a response to alleged Houthi attacks on commercial and naval vessels, have been justified by the U.S. and U.K. as acts of self-defence. But this rationale is not without its critics, and these actions have sent ripples of concern through the international community. The legitimacy of these strikes teeters on the precarious edge of legal interpretation, challenging established norms and setting a potential precedent for the justification of unilateral military force.
At the heart of the controversy is the question of whether these strikes align with the principles enshrined in the UN Charter. The US and UK have invoked the right to self-defence in the face of an “armed attack,” yet the evidence linking the Houthi rebels to such provocation, and by extension their alleged supporter Iran, is nebulous at best. The scale of the attacks on vessels, the minimal damage they caused, and the absence of casualties do not clearly satisfy the stringent criteria of an “armed attack” as outlined by the International Court of Justice, which necessitates substantial “scale and effects.”
The contention is further muddled by the fact that the Houthis, while controlling significant swathes of Yemen including the capital Sanaa, are not the internationally recognised government—a detail that complicates claims of self-defence against a non-state actor. The strikes, conducted on Yemeni soil, also raise questions about the extent of Iran’s influence over the rebels and whether it can be held accountable for their actions.
The notion of self-defence has traditionally been constrained to the protection of national sovereignty and the repulsion of imminent threats. However, the Anglo-American stance has stretched this concept to encompass the safeguarding of “free commerce.” This novel, and some would say radical, interpretation has extended the right to use force to protect commercial interests, a move that steps into uncharted legal territory and could inadvertently sanction unsanctioned attacks by other nations under the guise of defending trade.
The repercussions of this could be far-reaching, potentially undermining the very foundations of international law and the authority of the UN Security Council, which has been criticised for its imprecise resolutions that may inadvertently lend support to such unilateral actions.
The strategic significance of the Red Sea, trafficked by a substantial portion of the world’s shipping and oil trade, cannot be overstated. The Houthi attacks have already precipitated a spike in insurance premiums and rerouted shipping lanes, with some vessels now circumnavigating Africa to avoid the Red Sea’s perilous waters. This has profound implications for the global economy, particularly for European nations reliant on Middle Eastern energy supplies, and threatens to exacerbate inflation and hinder economic recovery.
Moreover, the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza, exacerbated by Israeli strikes and requiring substantial international aid, only adds to the complexity of the situation. The U.S.’s military rather than diplomatic approach to these issues could transform political tensions into economic crises, and with Secretary Blinken’s recent tour of the Middle East yielding scant progress, the path forward appears fraught with difficulty.
In these uncertain times, marked by a fragile economic recovery and a resurgence of inflation, the interconnected nature of global affairs demands a measured response. The U.S. and U.K. face a choice: to persist with unilateral military actions that risk further destabilisation or to seek alternative paths through diplomacy, sanctions, and international pressure.