Britain must admit complicity in the destruction of Yemen

Britain must admit complicity in the destruction of Yemen
Comment: The Foreign Affairs Select Committee's farcical u-turn over suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, demonstrates a deeply immoral and irresponsible policy, writes Amelia Smith
5 min read
22 Sep, 2016
Amnesty International activists stage a protest against UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia [Getty]

In late September last year two missiles tore through a cluster of tents at the Red Sea village of Al-Wahijah in Yemen, killing 131 guests who had gathered to celebrate a wedding. It was considered one of the deadliest attacks of the last 18 months yet outrage fell on deaf ears.

Several days later eyewitnesses reported that a Saudi-led air strike hit a family home in the small town of Sanban, south of the capital Sanaa, where three brothers were preparing for their wedding. Two grooms and one of the brides were killed along with at least 30 other guests.

Since the start of the Yemen conflict charities and human rights organisations have continued to draw attention to violations committed by all parties. But most agree that since the Saudi-led coalition joined the war in support of President Hadi - who is locked in battle with the Houthis - more civilians have died as a result of Saudi-backed air strikes than from any other cause. In June, the UN identified them as responsible for 60 percent of the 785 children killed in Yemen last year.

As the human cost of the war creeps ever higher, discontent over the UK's role is growing. At the centre of the debate is the revelation that the UK has approved £3.3bn worth of arms to Riyadh since their air campaign began - an aerial bombardment that has hit schools, mosques, hospitals and camps for the internally displaced.

Human Rights Watch found UK-manufactured guided munitions at two strike sites and the remains of a UK-manufactured cruise missile that killed civilians at another, evidence observers see as the final confirmation that Britain is complicit in war crimes in Yemen.

The debate reignited in early September when a draft report by The Committees on Arms Exports said that weapons sold to Saudi were "very possibly in contravention of UK's legal obligations". In Britain it is illegal to sell arms to a country at clear risk of committing international humanitarian crimes and so the report recommended Britain suspend arms exports until an independent inquiry establishes the facts.

Human Rights Watch found UK-manufactured guided munitions at two strike sites

Hours before the committee met to decide whether they would call for a ban on arms sales, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir - who denies the accusations - arrived at Westminster to exert some authority over the vote. He was successful.

In the aftermath of Al-Jubeir's visit, a rival document was drawn up and released by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which stated that rather than suspending arms, a legal case on the issue would be taken to the high court next year.

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt - the force behind the opposing camp - conducted a particularly evasive and farcical interview on Newsnight in which he sought to justify Saudi intervention in Yemen through his support for "the rule of law" over "the rule of the jungle".

It's hardly surprising Blunt wants to stay friends with Riyadh. He is also chair of the Conservative Middle East Council who, as a group which focus on trade and investment in the Middle East, have always had good relations with Saudi Arabia, Britain's largest arms export market. 

It needs to be made abundantly clear that the British government is directly responsible for helping Saudi Arabia destroy other people's lives

Other politicians have resorted to outright denial over Saudi Arabia's actions in Yemen. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has made a series of offensive comments and decisions regarding Britain and the Middle East, added Yemen to the list when he announced that Saudi Arabia's coalition are not "in clear breach" of International Humanitarian Law.

The British government has used many tactics to deflect the charges levelled against them. In January then Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain is not directly involved in Saudi operations, before adding: "We are backing the legitimate government in the Yemen".

But just three months earlier Egyptian strongman Sisi, who overthrew the first democratically elected President of Egypt in 2013, was in Downing Street to discuss business. Historically, Britain has never shown too much interest in supporting legitimate governments - they helped their US allies overthrow Iran's Mossadegh in 1953 whilst Thatcher's support for Chile's Pinochet was never a secret.

The UK has sold weapons to 22 out of 30 countries on the UK government's human rights watch list

Eight months later Cameron's successor Theresa May was also challenged about Britain's complicity in the Yemeni war. She responded: "Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia on issues like dealing with terrorism, on counter-terrorism issues. It is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe."

That May should prioritise "the war on terror" over Yemeni civilians should come as no surprise, for across the world, leaders have placed fighting radicalisation above respect for the basic principles of human rights.

As British politicians continue to insist they are fighting terrorism, supporting a legitimate government, and acting in the best interests of the British people, bombs continue fall on civilian targets in Yemen.

In light of the figures and eyewitness testimonies that have been made available to the government - some of which have been handed to them personally - their refusal to acknowledge war crimes in Yemen is not simply a case of calling into question their integrity. It needs to be made abundantly clear that the British government is directly responsible for helping Saudi destroy other people's lives.

All of this doesn't end in Yemen. Since 2010 two thirds of British arms sales have been made to the Middle East; sales that have made Britain the world's second biggest arms dealer after the US. In fact, the UK has sold weapons to 22 out of 30 countries on the UK government's human rights watch list. As we ramp up arms sales across the globe, the price we have paid for prioritising profit is the death, destruction and misery of thousands.

Amelia Smith is a London-based journalist who has a special interest in Middle East politics, art and culture. She is editor of The Arab Spring Five Years On. Follow her on Twitter: @amyinthedesert

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.