Information denied: British complicity with war crimes in Yemen

Information denied: British complicity with war crimes in Yemen
Comment: What's the extent of Britain's support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen? Journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to the country, and to information, writes Liam O'Hare.
6 min read
28 Mar, 2017
Dozens of refugees were shot as their boat arrived into Al-Hudaydah, Yemen [AFP]

Earlier this month, more than 42 Somali refugees were killed after their boat was attacked by a helicopter off the coast of Yemen.

Blame for the deaths has been put firmly at the door of the Saudi-led coalition involved in the battle against Houthi rebels, and rightly so. The coalition controls all of Yemen's airspace and owns an array of Apache helicopters supplied by the United States.

It is the latest atrocity in a bloody war which has left over 10,000 dead and the country on the brink of famine. The Houthi rebels, who control the capital Sanaa and the surrounding areas, have also been accused of war crimes.

But it is the Saudi-led coalition which is responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties, and this is yet another incident to add to an ever-growing list.

The political and military support that Saudi Arabia receives from the United Kingdom has been well publicised. Britain has licensed over £3bn of weapons to the Kingdom since the bombing of Yemen began two years ago. Analysis by Greenpeace show that in 2015, 83 percent of UK arms exports were sold to Saudi Arabia.

These lucrative contracts have been the subject of a judicial review in the British courts, brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade who argue that the weapons are being used to illegally kill civilians in Yemen.

Less widely known though, is the direct assistance Britain is providing Saudi Arabia in terms of personnel and training on the ground. It has been established that there are British military officers stationed in the command and control rooms from where the bombing campaign of Yemen is being directed.

Who are these people, and what is their role in what the United Nations has called the 'widespread and systematic' attacks on civilian targets?

Who are these people, and what is their role in what the United Nations has called the "widespread and systematic" attacks on civilian targets?

Were there British officials in the command and control centre when the decision was made to strike the boat filled with refugees? Were they involved when a funeral was struck killing 140 people and wounding over 500? What role did British officials play when a Medicines Sans Frontiers hospital was hit by the Saudi-led coalition?

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These are all questions that demand answers. I'm sure I am not the only journalist to have submitted a number of Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Defence on this issue, in an attempt to provide some clarity.

Unsurprisingly, the MOD have proved obstructive to say the least.

In the absence of transparency from the government, there are two conclusions that might be drawn from Britain's involvement. The first is that - as the MOD has claimed - British forces are there to provide training to the coalition on compliance with international law.

On this, let's consider the 51-page report which the UN panel investigating the conflict compiled.

The findings state that "the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure,"

The British military is once again wilfully engaged in some of the gravest war crimes happening today

So whatever training Britain is providing, it clearly isn't working. The mission has to be considered an unmitigated failure.

The other, even more disturbing conclusion, is that the British military is once again wilfully engaged in some of the gravest war crimes happening today - an utterly dreadful thought.

Either way, the facts cast a shadow of Britain's deep involvement in a war which has had catastrophic humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of Yemen. The paradox of course is that Britain is sending humanitarian aid to a country which only needs that aid because it is being bombed to smithereens by British weapons. 

  Read more: Inside Yemen, six years after the 'Friday of Dignity'

The window of opportunity to act before an even worse crisis unfolds is closing. According to all the major aid agencies, seven million people in the country are on the brink of starvation. This wouldn't, of course, be the first time Britain has played a dark role in disastrous famines - think Ireland and India under colonial rule.

In an era when news travels around the world in an instant, it is proving increasingly difficult for journalists to access Yemen. Visa requests must be made to the Hadi government in exile in Riyadh.

With Saudi Arabia controlling Yemen's airspace, no visas have been granted for journalists for months. The lack of international reporters on the ground makes it even more difficult for the war to receive the coverage it deserves. 

The crisis in Yemen cuts to the heart of the folly and hypocrisy of British foreign policy

Indeed, neither have many politicians sought or received permission to visit Yemen. Britain's former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell is the only MP to have seen the situation on the ground in over two years. His warning on his return was stark.

Britain, is in danger of becoming "complicit in the destruction of a sovereign state", Mitchell said. The Conservative MP added that support for the Saudi-led coalition "will stoke a further generation of terror" and lead to "threats to Europe”.

The crisis in Yemen cuts to the heart of the folly and hypocrisy of British foreign policy.

The United Kingdom cannot take any moral high ground on human rights, while at the same time supporting a tyrannical and undemocratic regime like that of Saudi Arabia. It cannot claim to be combating "terrorism" while at the same time laying the most fertile of ground for extremism.

The UK government claims that it has one of the world's strictest controls on arms exports. If that really is the case, it must immediately stop selling the weapons that are destroying Yemen, and abandon all support for the brutal war the Saudis are waging. 

When desperate refugees are being bombed on boats, we have a right to know exactly what role our government is playing in that.

The full truth on Britain's murky role in the unfolding catastrophe in Yemen will eventually become clear. We can only hope by that point that there is still a Yemen to speak of.

Liam O'Hare is a journalist based between Glasgow and London. His work has been published in the Independent, the Herald, Al Jazeera, and Jacobin Magazine among various other titles.

Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_O_Hare

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.