Yemen in Focus: British MPs slam 'outrageous' decision to resume Saudi arms sales

Yemen in Focus: British MPs slam 'outrageous' decision to resume Saudi arms sales
This week we focus on a 'disappointing' decision by the UK to resume Saudi arms sales, warnings over famine in Yemen and more.
11 min read
08 July, 2020
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Yemen since 2015. [Getty]
British MPs have denounced a controversial decision by the UK government on Tuesday to resume its sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, despite outcry over the devastating civilian death toll caused by the Riyadh-led military campaign in Yemen.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has taken a staunch stance against the conflict in Yemen, described his government's decision as an outrage.

"These arms will fuel the illegal Saudi war on Yemen, leading to death and destruction. It shows how little Tory rhetoric around human rights really means. It is an outrage and must be opposed," Corbyn said.

Similar views were shared by Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West & Abingdon and Spokesperson for Education, who said it was "jaw-dropping that the government is going to start selling arms again to Saudi Arabia despite its role bombing civilians in Yemen.

"Britain should be standing firm for the values we believe in instead of selling them off to the highest bidder," the British-Arab official said on Twitter.

The move was also condemned by Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion and former leader and co-leader of the Green Party, who weighed in on the "hypocrisy" of the move.

These arms will fuel the illegal Saudi war on Yemen, leading to death and destruction

"How the Foreign Secretary can say on one day that the UK will act as a force for good in the world, standing up for human rights, and then on the next, agree to this moral outrage is just unbelievable. The hypocrisy leaves me lost for words."

Stewart Good, a former adviser to 10 Downing Street, described the decision as both astonishing and disappointing, noting it "makes the UK complicit in the continuing tragedy in Yemen."

In an email sent to The New Arab, Scottish National Party Shadow Foreign Affairs Secretary Alyn Smith MP said the government has repeatedly and disgracefully put profits before peace, even before the Yemen war.

“They have prioritised billions of pounds in arms sales over human lives as evidence mounts of blatant violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition.

“Germany, Canada, Spain, Finland, Denmark, the US Congress and EU Parliament have all taken a principled stance against further arms exports to the Saudi regime. Rather than being on the wrong side of history, the UK government should get its act together and help bring this war to an end.

The UK government should step up efforts to end this devastating conflict rather than resuming arms sales to the aggressors, the British MP added, noting the SNP will "continue to challenge the UK government in Westminster over this catastrophic failure of foreign policy and will hold it to account over its active role in this war.”

The widespread criticism followed a statement by Trade Secretary Liz Truss on Tuesday which said that while the UK government's sale of weapons to the kingdom is contingent on whether they violate international humanitarian law (IHL), the UK determined allegations of civilian deaths in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition to be "isolated incidents".

Truss said Saudi Arabia has a "genuine intent and the capacity" to comply with humanitarian law.

"On that basis, I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL," she stated.

Truss said the UK government will begin the process of "clearing the backlog of license applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners" that has accumulated since 20 June, 2019.

Despite a 2019 court ruling that banned UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UK has admitted to breaching the ban several times.

Last year's judgement deemed the government's sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen to be "unlawful". The UK is a key supplier of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

British aerospace company BAE Systems sold £15 billion ($19 billion) worth of arms and services to Saudi Arabia over the past five years, according to an analysis by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).

CAAT, which is mulling over legal options against the UK's latest move, criticised the government's "disgraceful and morally bankrupt decision" that exposes the "hypocrisy" of UK foreign policy.

"The evidence shows a clear pattern of heinous and appalling breaches of international humanitarian law by a coalition which has repeatedly targeted civilian gatherings such as weddings, funerals, and marketplaces," said CAAT's Andrew Smith.

The evidence shows a clear pattern of heinous and appalling breaches of international humanitarian law by a coalition which has repeatedly targeted civilian gatherings

"The government claims that these are isolated incidents, but how many hundreds of isolated incidents would it take for the government to stop supplying the weaponry?"

CAAT also revealed on Tuesday that between September 2016 and March 2017, the UK's Royal Navy provided training to Emirati and Saudi military personnel, despite the devastating siege on Yemen, where millions of people are reliant on aid to survive.

The Royal Air Force also trained 310 Saudi personnel last year at six sites in the UK, with courses still ongoing despite the huge harm that Saudi-led air strikes on cities and towns in Yemen have caused civilians.

The UK licensed £5.3 billion worth of arms to the Saudi regime since Riyadh intervened in the Yemen war in March 2015, with the government admitting to breaching weapons bans on a number of occasions, CAAT added in a statement.

On the day prior to Truss' announcement, the UK Foreign Office moved to sanction 49 groups and individuals across the world for violating human rights, including Saudi citizens linked to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia is engaged in a proxy war in Yemen, which has created the biggest humanitarian crisis in recent history, according to the United Nations, killing more than 100,000 people across the country.

On the brink of famine.. again

The UK's devastating decision came just a day before the country's UN humanitarian coordinator warned that Yemen is once again on the brink of famine as donor funds that averted catastrophe just 18 months ago have dried up.

With much of the country dependent on aid, a coronavirus pandemic raging unchecked, and countless children already facing starvation, Lise Grande said that millions of vulnerable families could quickly move from "being able to hold on to being in free fall."

The United Nations raised only around half the required $2.41 billion in aid for Yemen at a June donor conference co-hosted by Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition backing the internationally recognised government against Houthi rebels who control much of the north.

While tens of thousands have already been killed and an estimated four million people displaced by war, 80 percent of the country's 29 million people are dependent on aid for their survival.

The UK licensed £5.3 billion worth of arms to the Saudi regime since Riyadh intervened in the Yemen war in March 2015

Grande said in an interview from Sanaa that critical programmes providing sanitation, healthcare and food were already closing down because of a lack of cash, just as the economic situation is looking "scarily similar" to the darkest days of the crisis.

A critical fuel shortage, for which the Houthis and the government are trading blame, is now threatening the operation of the electricity grid, water supply, and key infrastructure like hospitals.

"Ships aren't being allowed to bring in life-saving commodities, the currency is depreciating very quickly. The central bank is out of money. The price of a basic food basket... has increased by 30 percent in just the past few weeks alone," Grande said.

"We're seeing the same factors driving the country towards famine that we saw before. We don't have the resources we need to fight it and roll it back this time. It's something to be profoundly worried about."

Saudi Arabia emerged as the biggest donor at the June event, pledging $500 million. Britain and the United States, both major weapons suppliers to Saudi Arabia, also stepped in with large packages.

However, Grande said that only nine of the 31 donors had actually provided the funds - a pattern that the UN has sounded alarm over before, and which will worsen as the world sinks into a coronavirus-induced recession.

"It's very clear that the Covid pandemic has put pressure on assistance budgets all over the world … They're just not going to be able to do what they've done previously. And the impact of that is going to be very significant, very severe," she said.

Yemen has so far officially recorded some 1,300 cases of the disease, with 359 fatalities, but testing is scant, most clinics are ill-equipped to determine causes of death and there are ominous signs that the real toll is much higher.

Modelling by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine indicates there could have been over one million coronavirus infections by last month, and that 85,000 people could die in a worst-case scenario.

But as the country's needs escalate, the ability to meet them has diminished.

Grande said that in the next few days, the UN faced the "unbelievable situation" of having to stop providing fuel to hospitals as well as water supply and sanitation systems across the country.

The World Food Programme, which has been providing staples to 13 million people, has had to scale back with deliveries to only about 8.5-8.7 million people per month, and many of those have been put on half rations.

The UK's devastating decision came just a day before the country's UN humanitarian coordinator warned that Yemen is once again on the brink of famine

And the week the coronavirus crisis started, the WHO ran out of funds to pay 10,000 public health workers across the country. A year and a half ago when Yemen last stood on the brink, the situation was very different. 

The central bank was recapitalised by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - then an active partner in the coalition - paid schoolteachers' salaries, the currency was stabilised and commodity imports were supported.

"Eighteen months ago, we were one of the best funded humanitarian operations in the world," Grande said. "The country is right back where it was. The difference is that now we don't have the resources we need in order to push it back." 

Detainees 'at high virus risk'

Meanwhile, a leading rights group on Thursday accused secessionist Yemeni authorities of holding detainees at an overcrowded detention centre in the country's south, exposing them to "serious health risks" amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Human Rights Watch said detainees at Aden's informal detention facility of Bir Ahmed are denied gear such as masks, gloves and sanitisers as well as basic health care services.

The facility is controlled by the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist movement backed by the United Arab Emirates. A spokesman for the STC was not immediately available for comment.

The UAE was a key member of the Saudi-led military coalition fighting Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels, until they announced they were withdrawing from the conflict in 2019. Since then, they have continued to exert influence through their Yemeni allies.

"The grossly overcrowded conditions and absence of health care at Aden's Bir Ahmed facility threatens the lives of detainees and facility staff as Covid-19 spreads in Yemen," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW. "The Southern Transitional Council authorities should urgently address the inhumane detention conditions and release those detained arbitrarily," he added.

The New York-based rights group quoted relatives of five detainees at Bir Ahmed as saying authorities affiliated with the southern secessionists transferred 44 detainees into a room of only 10 square meters (107 square feet), where four people had been previously held.

The HRW statement cited detainee accounts indicating that one prison guard has already died of Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, and another became "severely ill" with symptoms.

Meanwhile, authorities have banned visits since 1 May and deprived detainees of medicine for chronic diseases, the rights organisation said. So far, Yemen has recorded nearly 1,200 virus cases, including 319 deaths. However, the actual tally is believed to be much higher.

Over 80 percent of the country's 29 million people are dependent on aid for their survival

Last week, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council that the virus is spreading rapidly across Yemen, killing about 25 percent of confirmed cases - five times the global average.

The HRW statement comes on the heels of a recent report by a local rights group accusing both sides in the country's civil war of arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and torture of hundreds of people in unofficial detention centres across Yemen.

The Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights said it documented over 1,600 cases of arbitrary detentions, 770 cases of forced disappearances, 344 cases of torture and at least 66 deaths in secret prisons run by the warring sides, namely the Houthis and the UAE, since April 2016.

Investigations and field visits by the rights group collected thousands of interviews with ex-detainees who pointed to the UAE and its proxies for the most heinous crimes committed, such as hanging detainees upside down for hours and the burning of genitalia.

UAE forces were accused of a total of 419 cases of arbitrary and abusive detentions, 327 disappearances, 141 claims of torture and 25 deaths.

Similar violations carried out by the Saudi-backed government, which includes the Islah Party, counted 282 detentions, 90 disappearances, 65 cases of torture and 14 deaths.

Yemenis once held by the Houthi security and intelligence agency in the capital Sanaa told the group they had witnessed extensive beatings, nails being pulled out, and electric shocks being administered.

Detainees at a prison in Abyan said they were forced to drink urine, subjected to sexual torture, and witnessed dead bodies being dumped in the yard of the neighbouring hospital.

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino