Kate Osamor: “This world is messed up”
The traumatic pictures coming out of Syria have reignited the charged debate about foreign intervention. Labour’s Kate Osamor has been wrestling to try and find the right answer – but believes Bashar al-Assad must be “removed” if found to have carried out a chemical weapons attack on his own people. And as world leaders gather in London for CHOGM, the Shadow International Development Secretary is pushing to make sure human rights remain firmly on the agenda. She talks to Emilio Casalicchio
When footage of dead children and babies foaming at the mouth started to spread around the internet on Saturday, Kate Osamor began to cry. The Shadow International Development Secretary says the “awful” images in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, prompted a key question: “Who could do this?” It’s a question that continues to dog her.
As observers pointed the finger at Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, while others countered that the attack was launched by rebel forces fighting the civil war, her resolve at the need for a UN investigation to clear the matter up once and for all was stiffened. “We need independent eyes to go in and for all sides – all leaders or people who are purported to be leaders – to be questioned as to whether they have access to these weapons,” she explains.
Osamor insists that the UN has failed to accuse the Syrian government outright of chemical weapons attacks over the past few years (despite a UN/OPCW conclusion in 2016 that official forces used chlorine in three cases and another verdict in 2017 that Sarin was used in Khan Sheikhoun in the north of the country in the deadliest use of the nerve agent in three years).
“It isn’t for the want of trying,” she explains. “It’s that evidence that comes out of it can’t be 110%... I genuinely want to know, why are there all these investigations, and when we get to the end we still can’t say ‘it is X, Y and Z’?”
Osamor says there must be “something more” as to why Assad has not yet been called out by the global coalition, and demands a fresh probe so she can “hope and pray that we would be able to get to a better result than what we have got”. She calls on the UN investigatory bodies to be transparent about their work to ensure people “have faith” in another investigation and to prevent any counterclaims from troublesome states – like Russia, presumably.
Naturally, the poison attack has reignited the debate about foreign intervention, and much soul-searching about why the Commons blocked action against Assad back in 2013. It is unlikely Jeremy Corbyn would ever back a military move against the Syrian government, and Osamor equivocates when asked if intervention can be justified.
“I think what we have seen over the years is that when the intervention takes place the outcome sometimes can be even more devastating than the time before the intervention,” she explains. “I don’t know if it outweighs it. I just don’t know.”
But on Assad, she quickly adds: “That person needs to be removed. I mean, intervention must take place if evidence comes back that the PM or the president or whoever the leader is, is gassing his own people.”
However, she warns: “It’s not as easy as just removing someone. I think that’s what needs to happen. They always seem to abscond, end up in another country... This world is messed up... it’s not easy. But if a leader is killing their own they need to be removed. We don’t keep them there. They need to go. He needs to be removed. But how do you remove someone? I’m saying this almost as a layman, but I know politically you can’t just remove somebody who is elected.” (The Syrian dictator has gained eye-wateringly high majorities in votes branded a sham by the west but “free and fair” by allies).
The solution to the quandary, according to Osamor? The UN must “think outside the box” on how to get rid of him, since the “same old same old doesn’t work”. She adds: “Especially when you are dealing with someone who is laughing in the face of democracy.”
The unsure footing over foreign policy has become the fallback of the Labour frontbench – especially when it comes to the leader himself. Jeremy Corbyn faced criticism for failing to call out Russia in the wake of the Salisbury nerve agent attack, but has spoken out in strong language at the Saudi regime over alleged human rights abuses in Yemen or at Israel when it comes to Palestinian protesters killed in Gaza.
It was a discrepancy picked up on when Labour released an unnamed statement in the wake of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, which failed to point the finger at anyone specific, simply saying “anyone responsible” should be brought to justice and calling for “concrete steps on all sides” to start peace talks. Corbyn did follow up a few hours later with a tweet of his own, again fingering "those responsible".
As usual, critics of the Labour leader accused him of being soft on Russia and Iran. But Osamor has a radical proposal that could solve the headaches: Corbyn should stop commenting on foreign policy. “First and foremost, he should allow the spokesperson for that department really to respond,” she explains. “If that’s what he’s being assessed on... then he should just let his spokesperson speak because it seems that whatever he says is not good enough – it’s too strong or it’s not strong enough.”
She argues his responses to foreign affairs distract from the central issue – the atrocity or despot at hand – and even if his tone and approach were sufficient he would still be called out because of “the relationship he’s had with those countries” in the past. She argues being the party leader rather than the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister means he in fact “doesn’t need to” put his two cents in all the time.
Corbyn’s foreign policy positions have helped fuel the Labour debate around anti-Semitism, after his associations with the fringes of the Palestinian rights movement left him open to accusations that he is unable or unwilling to call out anti-Jewish racism.
As a passionate campaigner on the Israel/Palestine debate herself, Osamor insists Labour must ensure the focus remains on “the state” and how it treats civilians. “It can never be about Jewish people. And once you start doing that, unfortunately, people become anti-Semitic,” she explains.
But her own approach to the issue sparked a row in December last year when she backed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel on Twitter, as Donald Trump announced the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. She argued at the time that her intervention was not at odds with Labour policy (which is against blanket boycotts) as BDS targets its action at those companies and institutions “complicit” in the violation of Palestinian human rights – even though Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry spoke out against any boycott of products and Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson said the campaign itself was “morally wrong”.
Osamor suggests Watson should do more reading before he comments again. “Sometimes people make statements but then they don’t look about the history around apartheid, around separation, around people living side by side,” she says. She argues the boycott of South African produce between the 1960s and 1980s made a difference to the rights debate in the country.
“For me it’s about raising awareness and bringing more people to a place where they understand ‘what can I do to help’,” she says. “And at the end of the day it is choice. It’s up to you what produce you buy.”
But she leaves the door open to limiting that choice – at least for the Labour frontbench – and one day adopting a boycott as party policy. “I think we need to get to a place where we start educating everybody and make a decision based on that and then say, ‘this could be an alternative, this could be an option’,” she explains. “I would not say at this point in opposition we should be planning around boycotting without educating a whole generation that have missed out on that and don’t understand what’s going on.”
Something Osamor does want to talk about in the present is the way the UK should approach its aid policy. She and Corbyn recently launched a new roadmap, ‘A world for the many not the few’, which radically changes the Labour approach to focus on feminist values and reducing inequality around the world – rather than just poverty.
She explains that the Department for International Development should not pull support as nations move from ‘developing’ to ‘middle income’ status with a few high-net-worth individuals, but rather dig in to make sure an element of fairness takes hold for the “long-term”.
“Why aren’t we now helping these countries that have individuals who maybe are millionaires who are known on the global stage?” she asks. Meanwhile, the drive around feminism is about working with civil society groups to ensure women “are round the table when it comes to resolving conflict”, she explains. “I am not saying men should not be at the forefront of any change,” she insists. “But I am saying women have a core role in change.”
She argues the change in approach to both aspects should feed into tackling the issue of abuse in the aid sector, which came to light with the revelations about Oxfam staff using prostitutes in the wake of the Haiti earthquake.
“If inequality is already in the agencies how is that going to reflect in the work they do on the ground?” she asks. “Unfortunately, this scandal has exposed that those people who are at the top have little regard for those who are at the bottom.”
Osamor blasts the “status quo” in which “we have white men at the top and we have women, we have minority groups, we have other groups underneath”, and argues a change in the hierarchy and pay structures would empower the vulnerable to speak out about abuse. “What I’m saying is there was no safety net for those people who were in those roles which were not so senior in those organisations,” she explains.
The next big date in the diary for Osamor is this month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
A political storm is gathering as campaigners condemn the government for failing to address LGBT rights issues in many of the 53 nations involved. Indeed, Boris Johnson faced a backlash in February for refusing to intervene when Bermuda repealed same-sex marriage. According to campaigner Peter Tatchell, some 37 of the Commonwealth states currently impose anti-gay laws.
Osamor says the government should be more vocal around rights issues, as the nations are “potentially going to be our partners after Brexit” – a dream harboured by the likes of Johnson and Liam Fox. But she warns that the UK has to be “mindful” about a “gung-ho” approach to nations where faith serves as a key decision driver. And rather than seeing the UK as an agent for change abroad, she says Britain would do better to be more reflective about how it treats Commonwealth citizens at home.
Osamor has cases in her Edmonton constituency, she explains, of people who have lived in the UK for decades but are now being deported because their paperwork is not up to scratch. “We need to look at the way we treat our citizens who have come from the Commonwealth first and foremost before we start lecturing anybody else,” she says.
A major item on the CHOGM agenda will be whether or not Prince Charles has the right to become the next leader of the Commonwealth. The meeting is expected to be the last attended by the Queen, and the title is not necessarily hereditary.
One person the Prince of Wales cannot count on for support is Kate Osamor. “I don’t particularly think it should be him,” she says. “Not because I have an issue with the royal family. I just don’t think it should be him. I don’t really know what he’s been up to of late. He’s not been that vocal on issues.”
On who she would prefer, Osamor refuses to give a name. But she hopes for a “progressive” who will give a voice to those around the Commonwealth who might be at risk in the pursuit of Brexit. “We just need someone who’s level-headed, someone people respect but also someone who thinks outside the box,” she says.