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US’s “Defensive” Bombing of Yemen Is About Imperial Domination of the Seas

Bombs are falling in defense of a system that exploits those who live and work along global shipping routes.

Protesters hold a banner calling for an end to the bombing of Gaza and Yemen during a demonstration in solidarity with Palestine in central London.

On January 26, 2024, a fire broke out in the Red Sea. The Marlin Luanda, a Marshall Islands-flagged fuel tanker carrying highly flammable naphtha, was en route to Singapore when it was struck by an anti-ship missile approximately 60 nautical miles southeast of Aden, Yemen. The missile attack on the Marlin Luanda started a fire in one of the ship’s cargo tanks, prompting nearby United States, Indian and French naval vessels to rush to its aid. A team of 10 Indian navy personnel ended up boarding the vessel to assist the 23 seafarers from India and Bangladesh onboard the Marlin Luanda to extinguish the fire.

Launched by Houthi rebels who control vast swathes of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa, the attack on the Marlin Luanda was the latest disruption to commercial shipping transiting through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Since October 19, the Houthi movement in Yemen has targeted ships it claimed were linked to Israel as a response to Israeli incursions in Gaza. More recently, Houthis have set their sights on vessels with connections to the U.S. and Britain in the aftermath of U.S. and United Kingdom strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen.

The sea-lanes off the coast of Yemen are some of the busiest in the world. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a narrow waterway that separates Yemen from the Horn of Africa, is a critical “choke point” linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. In a world still dependent on oil and gas, these waters transported 7.80 million barrels of crude and fuel per day in the first 11 months of 2023. Some 12 percent of total seaborne-traded oil and 8 percent of the global liquefied natural gas trade passes through these straits in addition to the thousands of container ships that link Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal.

In response to these attacks, major shippers have begun rerouting ships via the Cape of Good Hope, adding 14-20 days of transit time as well as fuel and labor costs per voyage. Vessels transiting through the area have also used the onboard Automatic Identification System (AIS) to communicate with the rebels. AIS is generally used to post information about the ship’s destination, direction and speed. Given Houthi targeting of ships that are linked to Israel, U.S. and U.K., many vessels have used AIS to post that they have no connection to those countries in hopes of avoiding confrontation.

Arguing for a right to safeguard commerce in the Red Sea, the U.S. sought to establish a multinational coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian, in December 2023. Ostensibly comprising a coalition of 20 nations, this mission has primarily been spearheaded by the U.S. and U.K. as other countries such as China mostly watch from the sidelines, and as countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have declined to participate. In early January, as attacks on ships continued unabated, the U.S. and U.K. launched a series of strikes aimed at Houthi targets in Yemen.

In laying out a case for these U.S. and U.K. strikes, President Joe Biden described them as a “defensive action” — a phrasing echoed by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who spoke of these strikes as an act of “self-defense.” There is a certain degree of irony in the governments of the U.S. and U.K. claiming self-defense against Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, a country that until recently had been subject to a devastating blockade and aerial bombardment by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, backed by the U.S., U.K. and other Western powers.

This talk of defensive action echoes an earlier moment in U.S. history, when a newly independent republic under Thomas Jefferson decided to stop paying the Barbary states— Morocco, Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers — tribute for safe passage, a practice that was customary among European powers trading in the Mediterranean and was imposing a severe drain on the U.S. treasury. Instead, bypassing Congress, Jefferson launched a naval campaign against the corsairs of the Barbary states marking the beginning of extraterritorial deployment of U.S. power at sea. Then as now, self-defense was a mode of acting without being subject to the messiness of declaring “legal war.” Alongside this talk of self-defense there is another phrase both Biden and Sunak used in their justification: “freedom of navigation.” A historical and imperial legacy lies behind the U.S. and British warships and planes facing down Houthi rebels in the Bab-el-Mandeb.

Writing in the aftermath of the capture of the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina in the Straits of Singapore in 1603, a young Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius sought to justify Capt. Jakob van Heemskerck’s action through recourse to natural law and divine will. Grotius located van Heemskerck’s actions within a wider context of freedom of trade and navigation.

In Mare Liberum, his defense of this act of capture in the Straits of Singapore, Grotius argued that property (or what we would term a property right in contemporary parlance) could only be derived from physical possession and use. Given the fluidity of the ocean and its seeming inexhaustibility, no one could possess and thus exclude others from the sea. Given the absence of a property right over the ocean, the Portuguese had, for Grotius, acted unlawfully in their claim of a monopoly over trade and commerce in the Indies. As he concluded, “every nation is free to travel to every other nation, and to trade with it.”

This seemingly noble idea was essentially a straightforward justification of the right to expropriate in the name of free trade. The proceeds from the sale of goods captured from the Catarina were approximately equivalent to the annual revenue of the English government at the time, and more than double the capital of the English East India Company. Access to the trading routes of Asia was crucial to newly burgeoning empires in Europe, and this idea of the “free seas” helped establish imperial control over these waters.

Of course, this idea of freedom of navigation was contested not only by the Portuguese and their competing imperial project, but by numerous communities across the Indian Ocean. When the Portuguese sailed across the Cape of Good Hope and entered a preexisting world of commerce and trade in the Indian Ocean in 1498, they introduced the cartaz system of sea-passes to impose a trade monopoly from the Red Sea to Indonesia. The failure to capture Aden ended Portuguese plans for maritime hegemony. Similarly, in the 19th century, the British developed an ideology of an empire of free trade, built on the production and smuggling of opium from India to China, and melded humanitarian concerns over the abolition of slavery to criminalize alternative shipping networks in the region.

These attempts to establish a monopoly over trade and violence at sea through the freedom of navigation were countered by many in the region who rose up against those they termed pirates — the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and in more recent years, the Americans. Figures like Zayn al-Din al-Malibari who played a central role in the struggle against the Portuguese on the Malabar coast of southern India, rejected claims of free trade and turned accusations of piracy against their accusers.

In the post-war period, with the rise of the United Nations system and various treaty bodies such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS I), the Grotian imaginary of the free seas and freedom of navigation was enshrined in international law, albeit in more limited and restricted terms, reflecting attempts by coastal states to maintain sovereignty offshore against big maritime powers. Nonetheless, powerful maritime states — like the U.S., U.K., European Union, and increasingly China, India and others have secured for themselves the role of policing the global ocean.

When the U.S. and U.K. speak of freedom of navigation and in turn the Houthi movement reject that claim and speak of a competing logic of protection, they embody the current iteration of this longstanding mobile conversation. There is a familiar historical story being staged here, where the idea of freedom of navigation becomes a way to enable and justify Anglo-American imperium over the global ocean — an imperium that is contested and challenged at various global maritime choke points.

For those onboard cargo ships and oil tankers — most of whom hail from the Global South — there is also a certain familiarity to their current predicament.

Ninety percent of global trade happens by sea. Almost everything we consume has spent time on the thousands of ships — which are operated by over 2 million seafarers from over 140 countries — that are currently at sea. Global shipping and the dense maritime highways traversed by cargo ships remain key to the making and sustaining of a deeply interconnected world. The rise of containerization in the 1960s standardized container sizes, facilitating easy transport across the divides of land, sea and air, heralding a “logistics revolution.” These innovations lowered transport costs significantly, resulting in shipping companies seeking other ways of generating profits beyond efficiently transporting goods across the ocean. One key mode of ensuring continued profits was embracing “internationalization” and the 1980s and ’90s saw a series of legal and regulatory changes in the shipping industry.

In addition to taking advantage of tax havens, shipping companies started using “flags of conveniences” where for tax and regulatory purposes, ships purchase a different nationality. Additionally, there was a rise in subcontracting, where companies based in the U.S. and Europe would hire contractors to run and maintain various aspects of a ship. Subcontracting allowed shipping companies, primarily based in the West, to hire cheaper labor from countries across the Global South, such as the Philippines and India. Cargo ships today, like the Marlin Luanda, are operated by multinational crews where the nationality of the ownership, ship and crew have little relation. Onboard these ships, salaries and, often, legal recourse as a result of accident and injury are differentially determined based on nationality. These complex ownership structures and multinational labor pools end up, by design, ensuring profitability through the evasion of fiscal and regulatory responsibility.

The Marlin Luanda is emblematic of this other familiar story: It is operated by a fleet manager based in Singapore on behalf of a multinational company domiciled in Singapore that had been previously named in a case of offloading toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire. These ownership structures and histories represent the ways in which profits have been extracted on the backs of those who live and work along global shipping routes. From the deck of a cargo ship, missile strikes and U.S. Navy vessels are just the latest in a long list of hazards at sea. For these seafarers, this motley crew from the Global South, who navigate a world of pirates, canal closures, pandemics and other perils, there is also no freedom of navigation.

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