Yemen is a country in the grip of a civil war, which has far reaching implications, not just for its regional neighbours, but also for the Western powers that have long sought supremacy in the battle to claim the spoils of their Middle Eastern pie. For the UK, these implications largely pivot on its historically close relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Since 2015, Houthi forces and their allies, loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been battling against the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi for control of the country. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been heavily involved in the fighting, leading a coalition of Gulf Arab states seeking to influence the outcome of this bloody civil conflict in favour of Mr. Hadi’s elected government. But according to human rights groups Yemen’s neighbour has been deliberately targeting civilians during the conflict, a direct breach of international law.
Saudi Arabia’s alleged actions in Yemen have put exposure on a dubious international friendship with the UK. As the UK’s biggest arms customer, many argue it is likely that British weapons are helping to fuel the flow of civilian blood. A few months ago, for example, an Amnesty International research team visited Yemen and found a UK-made cluster bomb “used by the coalition in a series of strikes on civilians”.
Britain doesn’t shy away from trading in these murky waters. Under former Prime Minister David Cameron it is estimated that the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia were worth £5.6 billion over the past six years. According to Campaign Against Arms Trade, this included sales of weapons to 24 countries on the Government’s own list of states, which are of ‘humanitarian concern’ due to their poor human rights record.
These reports have increased pressure on the British Parliament to take action. At its recent conference, the Labour Party’s newly re-elected leader announced that a Labour government, if elected, would end British arms sales to Saudi Arabia and all countries where there are reports of human rights abuses or war crimes.
His call comes as MPs debate whether an immediate embargo should be applied to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. A recent UK Government report found that “the weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia.” However, not everyone on the UK’s Committee on Arms Export Controls agrees; there have been efforts to water the report down and to resist an embargo.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has defended the weapons deals, arguing that the violations are unproven. In August Saudi Arabia published the results of an internal investigation into eight incidents where its forces were said to be involved in bombings of civilian targets. The report defended the actions of the country’s military, saying that they had evidence of Houthi forces operating in the targeted areas.
But a recent UN report found that 60% of all civilian deaths in Yemen are attributable to the coalition’s airstrikes on “weddings, markets, schools and hospitals”. In June, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued a joint statement that called on the UN to suspend Saudi Arabia from its Human Rights Council. Together, the organisations claim to have documented 69 unlawful airstrikes by the coalition in Yemen, resulting in the deaths of at least 913 civilians. They have also documented 19 cases involving the use of internationally-banned cluster weapons.
As the political chess and counter claims endure, Yemen continues to be exposed to the instruments of war which rain from her skies stamped with the British flag. If the UK is ever to get serious about human rights, then it has to begin by practising the values that it espouses.