Saturday, June 22, 2024

Zarah Sultana: the Labour MP taking on the Tories, and her own party, over Gaza

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When the UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, sat in the BBC TV studio last Sunday morning, he clearly had no idea of the identity of the woman sitting on the panel opposite him, simply referring to her as “the Labour MP”.

By contrast, Zarah Sultana, the MP for Coventry South, knows everything about Lord Cameron, telling the Guardian that it was her hatred of him as prime minister that first brought her into politics as a young, leftwing, Muslim woman. Her whole political outlook has been shaped by Cameron: the trebling of tuition fees and austerity.

Elected in 2019 with a majority of just over 400, Sultana is 30 years old and has the largest TikTok following in parliament – not an altogether stunning benchmark given most MPs knowledge of the platform. In a recent interview in Elle magazine, she talked about what it was like to be the MP in receipt of the most death threats and abuse online.

But the reason the backbencher was sitting across from Cameron in a BBC studio, and the media are courting her, is that over the past seven months Sultana has become a relentless and articulate thorn in the side of the government, and sometimes her own party, over Gaza, and in particular UK arms sales to Israel.

At times her language about Israel has required her to apologise but Sultana also does her research. Of Pakistani heritage, she says it was a visit to the West Bank, a military court and to Jerusalem that led her to return to the UK as a changed 17-year-old. “I realised through the luck of my passport I could travel through checkpoints that left Palestinians humiliated.”

David Cameron, pictured in the BBC studio, recommended in April that Israel was not breaching international humanitarian law. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/AFP/Getty Images

Far from local voters accusing her of being the MP for Gaza, she says – at least in the real world as opposed to online – the support she receives gives her the energy to use the platform to investigate the arms export regime.

On the BBC, for instance, she was able to point out from reading court submissions about the sales of arms that when Cameron last recommended in April that Israel was not breaching international humanitarian law, the bureaucratic time lag by which the Foreign Office makes decisions meant he was not allowed to take the deaths of three British aid workers in an Israeli strike into account. She said the British public would be shocked if it knew this.

She said: “It is quite extraordinary that when he made his decisions any violations for the last three months could not be taken into account. They’ve invented this sort of bureaucratic system whereby if some piece of evidence hasn’t been evaluated fully it can’t be included in the advice.

“I’m sick of being told that our arms control system is the most robust and one of the strongest in the world. If I hear that one more time, I think I might jump in the Thames. The reality is that it is a completely broken system”.

When the Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi on the same BBC programme said the Commons committee on arms exports was one of the reasons the UK had such a strong system of accountability, she corrected him when the programme ended. She said: “I told him afterwards, I said, Nadhim, that committee doesn’t exist any more. And he said, ‘Well, it did amazing work and it was really good.’ And I said, maybe, but it has been abolished.”

She also follows the elisions and evasions of ministers, and has become a close student of the careful language Cameron deploys. When the foreign secretary says the UK government’s decisions are consistent with, or in line with, government legal advice, she notes that does not necessarily mean the assessment states Israel is complying with international law.

She said: “It’s interesting because Alicia Kearns [the conservative chair of the foreign affairs select committee] was recorded saying the Foreign Office has received advice that Israel is breaking international law, but just hasn’t announced it yet.

“And when I asked Rishi Sunak at prime minister’s questions about that, he wasn’t able to answer it in a yes-no frame and just gave 200 words of nonsense. So they haven’t fully denied that point.”

Cameron, she said, told the BBC: “The question we have to answer, ‘is there a serious risk of exports being used for a serious breach in international law?’ He then said ‘Up to now, we have continued with the export licensing’. So it’s completely vague. That phrasing is consistent with being told by lawyers that Israel is violating international law, but the lawyers left it up to him.

“In the past the government has refused numerous export licences on human rights grounds, so I cannot explain it. They clearly have discretion to do so. There is the precautionary principle in international and domestic law, and yet nothing happens.”

Sultana said she thought the whole system of arms export licensing may need to be taken away from secretive ministers and handed to a body of independent experts, an idea advanced by Emily Thornberry when she was shadow foreign secretary, but has disappeared as Labour policy, even though she is shadow attorney general.

She added: “The problem is that there are no viable systems of accountability. If we look at the international mechanisms, you’ve got the international court of justice, which the government said was unhelpful to look at the issue. The UK does not recognise the international criminal court’s jurisdiction in relation to the occupied Palestinian territories and then last week it also said it doesn’t support the UN commission of inquiry into individual incidents.”

She doubts if ministers recognise the long-term damage to the UK from the past six months. “I think our international reputation is in tatters. We are meant to be upholding the international rules based system and the institutions that were created after the second world war. And I think we’ve allowed those to be undermined. Not standing up at this moment means that for future conflict, the UK’s voice in so many places is going to be ignored”.

Despite her Corbynite politics being out of tune with the current Labour leadership, her traction inside the regional Labour party may have increased. She was one of the voices Labour turned to when it was clear Muslim opposition to Labour’s policy on Gaza might cost the West Midlands mayoralty. In the Birmingham area alone, the independent candidate, Akhmed Yakoob, won 69,000 votes to Labour’s 225,000, and he intends to stand against the shadow justice minister, Shabana Mahmood. Other independent Muslim grassroots candidates have this week announced they will stand in the West Midlands. Sultana is herself hardly impregnable given the size of her majority and the controversy that surrounds her.

Labour’s language and some of its policies has changed since the local elections, but Sultana is determined to chip away at a foreign secretary that she feels is completely unaccountable for the decisions they take.

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