On January 3rd 2024, a Joint Statement was released by the White House on behalf of 14 governments warning the Houthis of Yemen against further attacks on maritime shipping in the Red Sea.
The countries were the United States, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
The statement called for ‘‘the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews.’’ This is a reasonable demand.
However, the statement also stated:
‘‘The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways. We remain committed to the international rules-based order and are determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks.’’
This statement raises major concerns for several reasons.
Firstly, implicit in the statement is the threat of violence, of military action to be taken against the Houthis. A Sydney Morning Herald article on the Joint Declaration made clear that the consequences would likely include airstrikes on Houthi missile sites in Yemen with the Pentagon having drawn up detailed plans for such strikes.
Second and related, is the reference to the international rules-based order (RBO) rather than international Iaw-based order founded on the United Nations Charter. As stated by John Dugard SC, the ‘‘RBO is something other than international law. It is an alternative regime outside the discipline of international law which inevitably challenges and threatens international law.’’
The available information indicates that the countries who have signed onto the Joint Statement, led by the United States, may initiate, or support military action in Yemen without the legal authorisation provided by a United Nations Security Council Resolution.
Publicly available information shows that 11 Australian Defence Force personnel are being deployed to Bahrain as part of the ‘Combined Maritime Forces.’ Military action against the Houthis would be a corollary to the ‘coalition of the willing’ of which Australia was a part and which led to the disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The only public statement by a member of the Australian Government appears to be from the Health Minister Mark Butler who stated that ‘‘Australia as a responsible, proactive part of the global community obviously wants to be a part of that’’ referring to outrage and concerns over the Houthis’ attacks.
Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR) calls on the Government to clarify its position on potential military attacks against the Houthis in Yemen.
Specifically, and given the very real potential for such an attack to lead to a greater regional war, the Government should make it clear that Australia could only support such an attack if it was legally authorised by a United Nations Security Council Resolution as required by the United Nations Charter.
Further, AWPR calls on the Australian Government to take more active and urgent steps through all available means to bring about a negotiated settlement to the crisis in Gaza, which is the ultimate cause of the Houthis’ actions in the Red Sea.
Finally, AWPR believes that Parliament should be involved in any decision that has the potential to involve Australia in any use of military force overseas.
Recommendation three of the recent Inquiry into international armed conflict decision making included a requirement that the Parliament be recalled if Australia is becoming involved in an armed conflict overseas.
Given the potential ramifications of Australia’s involvement in an expanded conflict in the Middle East, the requirement to implement this recommendation now could not be more important or more urgent.
– AWPR Media Statement