By Katie Scotcher and Anneke Smith of RNZ
The Labour Party is condemning the Coalition Government’s deployment of Defence Force troops to the Middle East, saying it has “shades of Iraq”.
Following a request from the US, New Zealand is sending six personnel to the region to support future military action against Houthi targets.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been attacking ships in the Red Sea, which they say are linked to Israel, since the start of the Israel-Gaza conflict. In response, US and UK forces have been carrying out strikes at different locations in Yemen, with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, according to a joint statement signed by the six countries.
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has described the Houthi strikes as “illegal, unacceptable and profoundly destabilising”.
“This deployment, as part of an international coalition, is a continuation of New Zealand’s long history of defending freedom of navigation both in the Middle East and closer to home,” Luxon said.
“Nearly 15 percent of global trade goes through the Red Sea and the Houthi attacks are driving costs higher for New Zealanders and causing delays to shipments.”
Labour foreign affairs spokesperson David Parker made clear his party’s opposition to the deployment.
“We don’t think we should become embroiled in that conflict… which is part of a longer-term civil war in Yemen and we think that New Zealand should stay out of this, there’s no UN resolution in favour of it,” he said. “We don’t think we should get involved in a conflict in the Middle East.”
The Houthis, who control most of Yemen’s populated areas, have been fighting a civil war since 2014 against Yemen’s government, which had the backing of a coalition of Arab countries. By the start of 2022, the war had caused an estimated 377,000 deaths and displaced four million people, according to the UN.
New Zealand’s two major political parties have long taken a bipartisan approach to foreign affairs and Labour was briefed on the deployment by the Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs before it was announced publicly.
“We let them know it has shades of Iraq,” Parker told RNZ.
In the early 2000s, then Prime Minister Helen Clark resisted pressure from the US to join its invasion of Iraq, which had not been sanctioned by the United Nations.
“This Government doesn’t trade the lives of young New Zealanders for a war it doesn’t believe in,” Clark said at the time.
She did, however, agree to send troops to help with reconstruction efforts in September 2003.
The Coalition Government’s decision to deploy troops to the Middle East was a “break from recent traditions”, Parker said.
“New Zealand, despite all the pressure from the United States, Australia and Great Britain at the time, stayed out of the conflict in Iraq, when Iraq was invaded… we think history shows that was a very wise decision of the then Labour Government.
“This is not identical, but it is similar and we don’t think it will resolve the problems in the Middle East, which stem from civil war, other conflicts in the region, including in Gaza.”
When asked by RNZ if the deployment could set a precedent, Parker replied, “it’s easier to get into these things than get out of them”.
The Green Party’s co-leaders have also expressed their unhappiness with the deployment, describing it as “deeply disturbing”.
In a statement, Marama Davidson and James Shaw said they were “horrified at this Government’s decision to further inflame tensions in the Middle East”.
“The international community has an obligation to protect peace and human rights. Right now, what we are witnessing in the Middle East is a regional power play between different state and non-state groups.
“This decision is only likely to inflame tensions
“When the US asks us to support their military operation, questions need to be asked about the strategic interests the US is prioritising and whether these align with the clear support of the New Zealand people for our Defence Force to be focused on peacebuilding and enduring justice.”
Davidson and Shaw indicated they would call for an urgent debate on the deployment when Parliament resumes next week.