When it comes to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world – Yemen – the UK has opted for death and destruction over any remotely meaningful attempt at peace, writes Taj Ali.
Right now, we are witnessing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. More than 80% of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance including 12 million children. This is no natural disaster; it is a manmade catastrophe and the UK Government have played a central role in creating it.
Since 2015, the UK-backed Saudi Coalition has carried out deadly airstrikes on Yemen, hitting schools, mosques and hospitals. The Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have been responsible for about two-thirds of the civilian deaths in Yemen, according to the independent Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
The British government has played a direct role in licensing arms to the Saudi regime to carry out these indiscriminate airstrikes. In fact, between 2010 and 2019, the UK was the second largest exporter of arms transfers (after the US) to Saudi Arabia. This accounted for 40% of the UK’s total arms export volume.
According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, since the war in Yemen began in 2015, the British government has licensed over £5.3bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. Aside from licensing the sales of a vast array of deadly weapons such as Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets and precision-guided bombs, the British government has also provided training, intelligence and logistical support for the Saudi regime.
Profiting from death and destruction
One of the UK’s biggest arms companies, BAE systems, has sold over £15bn worth of arms to the Saudi regime since the war began in 2015. According to the company’s most recent annual report, Saudi Arabia was the largest destination for the sales of its military aircraft, accounting for over 35% of the company’s air division. These arms corporations continue to act with impunity and profit from the suffering of millions of people in Yemen and elsewhere in the Muslim-majority world.
Last year, a court of appeal ruling declared UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be illegal, which subsequently led to the suspension of new arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This suspension, however, was only temporary with the UK resuming arms sales to the Saudis since early July.
International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, has argued that Britain can resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia because the bombing of civilians using British weaponry are “isolated incidents”. This could not be further from the truth. As recently as last week, a Sky News investigation discovered evidence of a recent potential war crime in northern Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, which is backed by the US and Britain.
The Ministry of Defence, itself, has recorded 500 Saudi airstrikes that violated international law. Despite claims of stringent checks and controls from government ministers, there is simply no mechanism to check where these weapons are being used.
The UK government are well aware of reports that state where British weapons are being used for clear breaches of international humanitarian law.
They have made a conscious decision not to take any action. For instance, Amnesty International documented the Saudi-led Coalition’s use of various cluster bombs, including UK-manufactured models in Sana’a, Hajjah, Amran and Sa’da governorates. These cluster bombs release many small bomblets over a wide area thus posing a significant threat to civilians during attacks.
It is absurd when government ministers portray themselves as saviours of Yemen by boasting about their extensive aid programmes while simultaneously providing the weapons and bombs used to cause their misery and dependence on aid in the first place. Government ministers are right to highlight that the UK has given £1 billion in aid to Yemen, but what they don’t mention is the £6.5 billion in arms they have licensed to the countries bombing Yemen.
With 16 million people in Yemen waking up hungry every day, Yemenis suffer not just from indiscriminate bombing but also malnutrition. The situation is made worse with the collapse of Yemen’s healthcare system in the midst of a global pandemic. Yemen is facing crisis after crisis and our government has done nothing near enough to alleviate the suffering.
Peace vs Profit
Rather than support a peace process, the UK government has sought to take advantage of the situation by selling weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, and therefore exacerbating an already disastrous situation. As the conflict enters its sixth year, there is no end in sight.
The brutal reality is this: Britain is not interested in bringing about a peaceful settlement in Yemen. Peace is not profitable. It does not serve the interests of the British arms industry. The crisis in Yemen lays bare the dangerous and inhumane priorities of British foreign policy. It is a damning indictment of a British foreign policy in which economic self-interest triumphs human rights.
The UK government has been complicit in the suffering of Yemen for far too long with an arms embargo long overdue. Several European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Greece have already partly or wholly suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Britain must now follow suit. The suspension of arms may not halt the civil war but it would certainly contribute in alleviating the suffering of the Yemeni people.
Taj Ali is the former ethnic minorities officer at the University of Warwick. He recently graduated from Warwick University with a BA in History and Politics. You can follow him on Twitter @taj_ali1