It is sometimes hard to see why the war in Syria gets so much coverage in Britain, while the war in Yemen is all but ignored; it feels like a niche topic restricted to hard-core Middle East watchers. In reality, though, events in Yemen strike at the heart of Britain’s relationship with the Middle East; indeed, of its loyalty verging on subservience to the interests of Saudi Arabia. The latter is one of the most powerful and newsworthy countries on earth, where the lifting of a driving ban makes global headlines, but the Royal Saudi Air Force bombing women and children in Yemen is rarely acknowledged.
Why this isn’t a bigger story in the media is mystifying. It may be that subconscious bias exists amongst editors who feel a strong loyalty to the British state whenever it is involved in military ventures. Many newsrooms are in denial or simply disinterested that Britain is occasionally on the side of the bombers who target mosques, schools and markets; that on occasion we mistakenly back the bad guys, rather than in a war like Syria, where we are backing the underdog rebels (although some of those rebels are really very bad too). Or in Iraq in 2003 where – whatever the faults in the logic behind the invasion — the invading troops clearly had the moral upper hand over Saddam Hussein.
Another possibility is that the rumour of a deal being struck between the Ministry of Defence in London and certain media outfits to limit coverage of the Yemen conflict, in return for “access” elsewhere on defence issues, is true. The details are hard to pin down, perhaps because the deal does not exist.
A final possibility is that there is simply too much going on in the world. Few Britons buy newspapers any more, yet still expect quality journalism on news websites. Foreign desk budgets are squeezed, and so covering Trump, Syria, Putin, Brexit, China and Yemen is a stretch.
Human Rights Watch yesterday slammed the Saudi-led coalition for a lacklustre approach to investigating their own alleged war crimes. The key mechanism – the Joint Incident Assessment Team – is clearly not working as planned. Incidents looked at by impartial observers, such as the human rights body, featured striking factual inconsistencies with how JIAT reported on the same fatal events. The New York-based NGO has drawn attention to their investigations on 88 cases since March 2015; JIAT has investigated only a quarter of them. What’s more, JIAT has found no wrongdoing on the part of Saudi air controllers and lead commanders even as they bomb markets, wedding parties, a water pump facility, mosques, international NGO aid camps and residential complexes.
As Human Rights Watch’s latest report, released this week, clearly shows, the coalition has been deeply cynical with how it uses JIAT findings to its advantage. Not only does JIAT whitewashing adorn the pages of state-controlled media in Saudi Arabia — a re-assurance to residents that Riyadh is on the side of the angels — but criticism by the international community has often been offset by sudden releases of data.
For example, JIAT released incident results during a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2017. The agenda included calls for an independent international commission to be set up to investigate alleged war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition. The Saudis then released JIAT results to argue against the need for the proposed new international mechanism.
In March 2018, as Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman made his way to the United Kingdom for meetings with the British government, another tranche of JIAT results were issued suddenly, in an attempt to spare the blushes in Westminster. Then, in June, JIAT sent out a flurry of new findings ahead of a controversial offensive to capture Hodeida, Yemen’s most important port, an assault in which Yemen’s desperate humanitarian situation looked set to be exacerbated.
The personnel involved may also have something to do with all of this. MEMO first revealed in October 2016 that a notorious Bahraini judge had been appointed to lead JIAT. In the wake of the start of the ongoing 2011 uprising in Bahrain, military lawyer Colonel Mansour Al-Mansour presided over the First Instance Court of National Safety, a tribunal set up to process the trial and prosecution of hundreds of peaceful protesters and human rights and pro-democracy activists after they took to the streets calling for urgent reforms in the tiny Gulf monarchy.
Amongst Al-Mansour’s notorious convictions are the so-called “Bahraini Thirteen”, a group of activists, journalists and politicians who alleged torture, including sexual assault and beatings, during their detention. Al-Mansour is now the man acting as lead legal adviser to JIAT; the man who decides what does and does not constitute a human rights violation. It is obvious that he is unqualified for such a role.
Saudi Arabia has every right to defend its borders, but to carry on flying sorties in which there is clearly no distinction between civilians and Houthi fighters is not the way it should be done; it is murder. The government in Riyadh probably won’t take much notice, but if it chooses to read the latest Human Rights Watch report, carefully, and adopt even a handful of its conclusions, it would be a good start on the path to improving the Saudis’ reputation on the world stage.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.