An oil tanker held by Yemen rebels is at risk of poisoning the ocean

NGOs, environmental groups, the media and even international law seem badly equipped to deal with non-state actors

Deterioration on the single hull of the Safer.  April 2019 . All images supplied to I.R. Consilium and printed with permission from the original photographers and copyright owners.
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The crisis of the FSO Safer will be familiar to many readers of The National. The 45-year-old, 1,200-foot tanker off the Red Sea coast of Yemen, containing over 1 million barrels of crude oil, is falling apart.

In the absence of dramatic intervention, the tanker’s disintegration is a question of “when”, not “if”. At that point, it will shed its load, not only devastating the world’s last known temperature-resilient coral reef and the global ecosystems that depend upon it, but also preventing aid reaching the stricken humanitarian disaster zone of Yemen. There is also a risk of the disaster disabling desalination plants along the Red Sea, leaving the states that surround it with only three days’ supply of locally produced drinking water.

And while the background to the Safer's plight may be complex, the consequences are not. None will win, everyone will lose. Yemen's Houthi rebel group, who control the waters in which the Safer sits, will suffer. Yemen's internationally recognised government and the neighbouring states of the Saudi-led coalition defending it will also suffer. And most of all, the loss will be felt by the stricken people of Yemen, who could see drought and further starvation.

But international experts say that solving the situation ought not to be difficult, and that the most straightforward solution for all sides is to transfer the oil onto a new, safe tanker. In practical terms, they say, this is a relatively simple operation.

Police troopers secure the site of the funeral of Houthi fighters killed in recent fighting against forces of the internationally-recognized government, in Sanaa, Yemen November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
The Houthi rebel group controlling much of Yemen has refused to co-operate with international experts. Reuters

So why is there relative silence from international politicians, media and campaigners over this imminent catastrophe? Why is there little popular outcry? Why are there so few statements from world leaders outside of the region assuring us that they are doing everything to resolve this imminent humanitarian and global environmental disaster?

Equally bewildering is the relative silence of humanitarian NGOs. It is hard to think of any other circumstance where an imminent oil spill, four times the size of the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, is not the headline news of all the major environmental charities and campaigners.

In a recent podcast, I interviewed former UN adviser Dr Ian Ralby, an international expert on maritime security. He gave a chilling overview of the issue, outlining the delicacy of negotiations. He left listeners in no doubt as to the urgency in resolving it.

"At the moment, millions of Yemenis are living on the brink of famine," he explained. "And an entire generation of Yemenis stand to be lost to that famine. A spill [from the Safer] would deny them access to aid delivered through the port of Hodeida, and to clean drinking water from the desalination plants. This spill would be the quickest way to seal their fate."

Given the ecological and humanitarian impacts of the impending catastrophe, the Safer's situation ought to be a matter of global – not just regional – concern. The fact that international awareness of this issue does not match what is at stake poses an important question: does the challenge of the Safer reveal something lacking in our entire global law enforcement structure and media?

Perhaps the first problem is invisibility. The majority of our international legal structures that hold international players to account are based on state actors. They do so through the traditional measures of formal diplomatic relations, negotiations and sanctions. Non-state actors, including terrorists and rebel groups, even when backed by states, can be motivated by tribal links, ideology and a host of other incentives unrelated to the nation-state. In certain parts of the world, including Yemen, they may in practice hold as much influence and power as the state – or even more.

The State, as an internationally recognised entity, has certain responsibilities, is signed up to certain treaties and trade agreements, all of which can be leveraged to ensure the State is a responsible global state-citizen. Non-state actors are not. While scholars debate intensely how international law should be applied to these relatively new forces on the global stage, they do agree that lawmakers have fallen behind the curve. As lawyer and academic Vladyslav Lanovoy notes in the European Journal of International Law: “There persists a gap in the regulation of the use of force by non-state actors and the consequences, if any, for the states that facilitate it.”

You could call that an asymmetry of accountability.

A man and children sit in a cave where a Yemeni family has sought refuge due to poverty and lack of housing, west of the suburbs of Yemen's third-city of Taez on December 2, 2020.  / AFP / AHMAD AL-BASHA
Yemen has one of the highest poverty rates in the world. AFP
The State is signed up to treaties - non-state actors are not

To illustrate the extent of the problem, imagine a scenario in which the Safer was in state-controlled waters, instead of waters controlled by the Houthis, who are non-state actors. If this were the case, and it was a state that was responsible for allowing or denying secure access to the tanker to replace it and make it safe, there would be levers to hold this state to account. The state would be a legal entity, subject to international diplomacy. It could be lobbied and punished with sanctions.

And perhaps here is the second problem: if there is no legal entity which is responsible, the public response is more confused. If the Safer were sitting in waters controlled by a state, the public outside of the region might feel that there was a "someone" who was "responsible". Campaigns might spring up all over social media. Students in European universities may call for boycotts of goods from that state. Extinction Rebellion protesters may march through London with "MAKE THE SAFER SAFER" placards. Greta Thunberg might denounce the offending state and its leaders from her platform at the UN. The problem is that if there is no formal entity to lobby –only an informally self-declared authority – protests become less focussed and less satisfying, and ultimately just don't happen.

If the disproportionate silence over the Safer is an anomaly, then it is perhaps just a one-off tragedy. But if it is in fact a symptom and a warning of an outdated international accountability system, it is more serious.

As the international arena becomes ever more complex, and non-state, quasi-state and proxy-state actors drive events through different kinds of offensives, the failure of our international accountability system to keep up will result in an even more dangerous world.

There is another question to be asked, about how NGOs, charities and the media respond to such issues. What is it about the case of the Safer that has led to such a notable lack of activity from these effective and usually so vocal campaigners?

Maybe they would argue that nothing can grab public attention until there are pictures. How can the image of a steadily rusting ship compete for our attention with the harrowing video of rampant forest fires? It is far easier to lament a tragedy than to prevent it, and it is easier to publicise and fundraise for something lamentable than it is for something preventable.

The issue of The Safer is more than just a looming tragedy. It is an illustration of the shortfalls of systems of international accountability and rule of law. It is also a test of our determination to update our international response to non-state actors to reflect our new reality, and to prevent disasters before future generations are left to lament them.

Charlotte Leslie is head of the UK Conservative Middle East Council