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. Picture: Hani Mohammed / AP
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 10000 people have been killed, a million others are struggling with cholera (of which 2000 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.

* Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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