“Unjustified” was the word that the Saudi-led coalition eventually used to describe its bombing of a school bus in Yemen in August. It was a typically cold and understated response to a bombing campaign that has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Over 40 children were killed in the attack, which was condemned by rights groups and international organisations around the world. Henrietta Fore, executive director of the UN’s children’s fund, called it, “A low point in Yemen’s brutal war.”
At the time of the assault, the Royal Saudi Air Force refused to concede any fault, describing it as a “legitimate military operation carried out in accordance with humanitarian law.” It was the most recent in a long series of appalling massacres by the coalition.
In March 2015, only two weeks after the war began, Saudi forces bombed a refugee camp, killing 40 people. One year later, in March 2016, the same forces bombed a market place in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, killing 97 people. October 2016 saw the bombing of a funeral, in which 140 people were killed. In November last year, 25 people were killed in another market. This April, 20 people were killed at a wedding, including the bride.
Human rights campaigners and politicians from across the world have condemned the latest attacks. For a short time, a “forgotten war” caught the attention of the world’s media. Days later, another 26 children were killed in yet another terrible atrocity. Civilians have paid a terrible price for the war, with the Yemen Data Project estimating that one third of all bombs dropped on Yemen have hit civilian targets.
The intensification of violence has coincided with the collapse of peace talks. It has also come at a time when the UN is warning of a possible new cholera epidemic. This would be on top of what the European Union and UN agencies have already called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”
According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, almost two-thirds of reported civilian deaths in Yemen have been caused by the Saudi-led bombardment. However, this only counts those who have died as a direct result of the bombing, and not those that have died as a result of the crisis that it has created.
It would be almost impossible to calculate an accurate death toll. Reporting from Save the Children, though, has found that 50,000 children died of preventable causes in 2017 alone. In December 2016, UNICEF reported that a child died every 10 minutes from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections.
Despite the terrible backdrop, and intensifying international pressure, the Saudi regime has been able to count on the uncritical political and military support of a handful of powerful and compliant governments. One of those is Britain, which has armed and supported the bombardment every step of the way.
At the outbreak of the war, the then Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, pledged that Britain would “support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.” That support has been unwavering, with the government having licensed almost £5 billion worth of fighter jets, missiles and bombs in the years that have followed.
There is no doubt that these weapons have been used in attacks on civilian infrastructure. Thorough and authoritative reports from Human Rights Watch, Sky News and Amnesty International explicitly link British arms to attacks on civilian sites.
In 2016, after months of denial, the Saudi military had to admit that it had used UK-made cluster bombs. The bombs, which had been sold to the Kingdom in the 1980s, would now be banned by the cluster munitions convention.
Such arms sales are opposed overwhelmingly by the British public, with the most recent polling showing that only 13 per cent of people in the UK support arms sales to the Saudi military. That is why hundreds of people took to the streets to protest when the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, came to London in February.
The visit, which included meetings with the Queen, Theresa May and Prince William, finished with the announcement that both sides had moved a step closer to agreeing a deal for Eurofighter military aircraft. The deal, which would be worth billions of pounds, has already received top-level support from British Ministers and civil servants.
The approach of offering fawning and uncritical support in exchange for arms sales was summed up last year by the then Defence Minister, Michael Fallon. In an appearance in front of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, he urged MPs not to criticise the Saudi government’s human rights record and the conduct of the war in Yemen in case it impacted on them. “Criticism of Saudi Arabia in this parliament is not helpful,” he said, while stressing the need to secure the Eurofighter deal.
The message this sends to the Saudi government is one of total support. However, the one that it sends to the people of Yemen is that their lives are of less consequence than profits for BAE Systems and the other arms companies that have profited from the war. As Radhya Al-Mutawakel, Director of the Yemen-based Mwatana for Human Rights, has observed, UK policy “reflects the triumph of economic interests over the blood of innocent people.”
Every time these terrible atrocities take place we are assured by ministers that they are aberrations or mistakes. Very occasionally, such as in the instance of the school bus bombing, a Saudi-coalition spokesperson will eventually admit fault. Nothing changes, though. The war and the air strikes continue. So do the civilian deaths.
When the history books are written they will remember who inflicted the terrible war, and those who have allowed it to happen.
Even at this late stage, after three and a half years of war, Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and their colleagues must finally do the right thing. If not now, then how many more deadly “mistakes” do there need to be? It’s time to end the arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.