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Wars need oversight: Starmer’s opportunity for change

The US and UK have been bombing Yemen for six months. Their own citizens were never even consulted.

Smoke rises from the points where the US and UK had launched airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen on February 24, 2024. Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu
Smoke rises in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, following US/UK airstrikes on 24 February 2024.

This week marks six months since the US and the UK began hundreds of airstrikes on Yemen, a decision made by political leaders without heeding the views of Yemenis or consulting their own lawmakers. With new UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer vowing to centre human rights in all government action, now is a crucial moment to push towards a more just and accountable system by changing the way these choices are made.

Ongoing for nearly a decade, the conflict in Yemen stands as a harrowing testament to human suffering. Marked by extensive civilian harm and its hugely compounding effect on the country’s prolonged humanitarian crisis, the war has devastated the lives of millions.

In 2021, the UN estimated that the conflict had claimed the lives of 377,000 people, either through direct violence or through the indirect impacts of the war, like disease and hunger. By 2022, it verified that over 11,000 children had been either killed or seriously injured. In 2023, Yemen was ranked amongst the most heavily affected countries globally for civilian casualties from explosive weapons. Justice and accountability remain a far-off prospect for victims.

The US-UK airstrikes that began in January 2024 were prompted by Houthi rebel attacks on international shipping lanes in the Red Sea, and the targeting of commercial and military vessels.

Yet rather than deterring further attacks, the military response has actually increased tensions, spurring urgent pleas for de-escalation from the UN’s special envoy for Yemen. Analysts were quick to draw parallels between the escalatory impact of the recent US-UK airstrikes and the air campaign launched by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition against the Houthis in the early years of the war.

In the UK, then-Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s unilateral authorisation of the airstrikes without prior parliamentary consultation relit a longstanding debate over the UK government's prerogative power to authorise military interventions and sparked fresh calls for a War Powers Act to strengthen democratic control over the decision to go to war.

Similarly, President Joe Biden faced backlash from some legislators for failing to seek congressional authorisation for the US strikes.

Increase scrutiny over UK war powers decisions

Sunak is not the first UK prime minister to sideline parliament over a decision to go to war. In fact, what appeared to be an emerging convention in the early 2000s for leaders to seek parliamentary consultation about such moves has increasingly been brushed aside

For example, in March 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron sought parliamentary approval only after deploying the Royal Air Force to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya. In April 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May bypassed parliamentary approval entirely and ordered airstrikes on Syria in reaction to the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In both cases, the decision to approve military intervention has been widely criticised. 

As modern warfare evolves towards remote operations, expanding the potential for harm, there is an urgent need to enhance oversight and strengthen democratic control of war powers. This is especially important for the UK given its tendency to engage in wars of choice, which are more likely to skirt international law: The UN Charter restricts the use of force to situations of self-defence or actions authorised by the UN Security Council.

Hundreds of thousands of Yemeni people, holding banners and Palestinian flags, gather at Sebin Street after Friday prayers to protest against the US and UK airstrikes on Yemen and organized a demonstration in support of Palestinians in Sanaa, Yemen on January 19, 2024.
Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu
Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, holding banners and Palestinian flags, gather after Friday prayers in Sanaa to protest against US/UK airstrikes on Yemen and in support of Palestinians under Israeli onslaught, on 19 January 2024.

As Nigel White, professor of public international law at the University of Nottingham and the author of a recent report on how to strengthen democratic control of UK war powers published by the CEASEFIRE Centre for Civilian Rights, has said: “When war is waged by the UK, it is done in everyone’s name, and this profound life-changing and potentially world-changing commitment has to be approved by those institutions representing the people.”

Parliamentary scrutiny would not only improve accountability by enhancing transparency. Requiring the government to justify the legitimacy and legality of proposed operations to parliament would also likely improve the definition and control of military objectives and foster better compliance with international law.

Listen to local voices

Reform aimed at strengthening democratic accountability for military action overseas could go a long way towards limiting civilian harm. However, efforts should also be made to bridge the gap that exists between decision-makers and impacted communities. For example, communities across Yemen bear the long-term consequences of the war, but their views and experiences are systematically excluded in decision-making.

The UK’s decision to launch airstrikes without listening to the views of both ordinary people and experts in Yemen reflects a continuing colonial mentality.

Speaking on a panel inside the UK parliament in April, Nuha al-Junaid, a Yemeni activist and project coordinator of The New Humanitarian’s Yemen Listening Project, told the audience: “Another round of airstrikes won’t bring peace to Yemen: That, I know.” The simple truth of the matter is that “Yemenis don’t feel heard”, al-Junaid has said

Considering that less than 60 years ago, part of the south of the country was under British imperial rule because of the strategic importance of the Aden port, the UK’s decision to launch airstrikes without listening to the views of both ordinary people and experts in Yemen reflects a continuing colonial mentality.

Decolonising so-called “self-defence” operations – a controversial legal justification given by Sunak for the current round of airstrikes – requires at the very least giving proper consideration to the views of the people who live through these wars, and ideally honouring their needs and perspectives. If nothing else, this would very likely improve civilian protection.

At the same time, the international community should prioritise holding all perpetrators of international law violations to account and endeavour to provide long-awaited justice and redress to victims.

Establishing a normative framework

None of this will be easy, but it is possible.

Democratising and decolonising war powers will require, as a first step, a normative framework that legally establishes the obligation to seek prior parliamentary or congressional debate and approval for the use of military forces overseas.

While Article 1 of the US Constitution and the War Powers Resolution passed by Congress in 1973 ensures some degree of democratic oversight, no such framework exists in the UK. However, momentum towards the eventual introduction of a War Powers Act that would codify parliamentary approval for any significant use of military force overseas does exist and has seen periodic peaks in support across both parties.

Notably, in 2007, ahead of becoming the UK foreign secretary, William Hague, wrote an op-ed setting out Conservative Party support for a War Powers Act. And in 2020, Starmer pledged to introduce a ‘Prevention of Military Intervention Act’ as part of his Labour leadership bid.

It remains to be seen whether he will pursue this now as prime minister, after winning a landslide 4 July election. But when it comes to imagining the procedural terms of such a framework, two important aspects would demonstrate a real and clear commitment to justice and accountability.

The first would be to grant lawmakers the right to receive the full official legal advice (in the UK, that would mean advice from the attorney general), as well as advice from independent experts on the standing of the proposed operation under international law. The second would be to guarantee consultation of local stakeholders and meaningful engagement with the perspectives of victims and civilians on the ground.

For example, in the UK, local expertise and unbiased legal advice should be presented to peers and elected members of parliament so they can make an informed judgement when deciding whether or not to approve military intervention by British armed forces.

For the foreign policy of nations such as the UK and the US to become more just and accountable, the rights, safety, and lives of civilians must be prioritised, and their voices heard and respected.

The Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights (CEASEFIRE) is an international initiative to develop civilian-led monitoring of violations of international humanitarian law or human rights in armed conflict, to secure accountability and reparation for violations, and to develop the practice of civilian rights. In April 2024, CEASEFIRE published a policy brief by Nigel D White on Strengthening democratic control of UK war powers in an age of remote and hybrid warfare.

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