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Britain must address unlawful harm to civilians in Yemen

June 5, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Human rights campaigners protest against the UK arms sale to Saudi Arabia in London, UK on 11 July 2016 [Campaign Against Arms Trade/Flickr]

The war in Yemen has left many innocent civilians dead and is described as one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Despite the ongoing scale of this brutal war, the suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia have failed to address the unlawful harm to civilians in which they are complicit.

Last year, Britain apologised for selling licences for military equipment to Saudi Arabia in contravention of a court ruling banning arms sales to the Kingdom that could be used in the war on Yemen. It was reported that, “International Trade Secretary Liz Truss had admitted that the two licences had been granted for equipment that could be used in Yemen, but claimed the sales had been made ‘in error’, according to British media.” However, an apology is simply not good enough when lives continue to be lost in the war.

The British government is still selling arms to Saudi Arabia, despite the court ruling banning such sales; this is unacceptable. Accountability needs to be sought for the unlawful harm caused to civilians, starting with the Prime Minister’s role in signing-off licences. Boris Johnson has been accused of being complicit in signing-off arms deals for the use of British weapons in Yemen yet there has still been no proper investigation to highlight the unlawful harm to civilians as a consequence of Britain’s stance on arms in this war.

READ: Trump lifts 9-year ban on UK-Saudi arms subsidiary under the shadow of cover-up 

I fear that accountability will not be sought by putting Yemen higher up on the agenda. With Johnson’s alleged involvement in signing arms deals without assessing the risks posed to civilians how can he be trusted to do anything about his mistakes in retrospect?

The British Prime Minister has a record of bigotry and racism towards Muslims and minority groups and many British Muslims such as myself believe that he will neither look after the needs of minorities nor tackle issues affecting the Middle East objectively. This includes the war in Yemen, because he has been behind some of the unlawful arm sales in the first place.

Yemeni children affected by the Saudi-coalition war - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Yemeni children affected by the Saudi-coalition war – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The Court of Appeal issued a landmark ruling which deemed the use of British arms in the war in Yemen to be unlawful, prompting the government to suspend all new arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The government is currently scrambling around to review its reckless policies that led to supplying weapons to a country that has killed tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, and created a humanitarian crisis which threatens millions more with famine. Yet there has been no accountability to ascertain the extent by which international humanitarian law has been broken by Saudi Arabia and Britain’s complicity in providing Riyadh with arms.

Many of the bombs dropped on Yemen have done so with British assistance; they have killed innocent children, women, men and the elderly. Former Ministry of Defence official and defence attaché to Saudi Arabia and Yemen John Deverell told the Guardian, “They [the Saudis] couldn’t do it without us.” This is shameful; it is a disgrace that there was no apparent consideration of the violations of human rights and the risks posed to millions of innocent civilians who bear the brunt of such brutal warfare.

More worryingly, according to another report in the Guardian, three judges have alleged that Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Liam Fox were just some of the ministers who signed-off arm sales without assessing the risk posed to civilians. Hence, the accountability net needs to be spread widely in Westminster, as well as in Saudi Arabia for the damage inflicted in this cruel war. The issue of non-military British personnel training and guiding Saudi Arabia’s armed forces also needs to be taken into account.

READ: UK’s BAE Systems sold $18.7bn in arms to Saudi during Yemen war 

It is heartbreaking to think that so many lives have been lost, including babies, because those with the authority and responsibility did not do what was right. It is a fact that Yemen is now described as one of the “worst humanitarian crises in the world”. More than half a million babies and children are dying of chronic malnutrition due to this unnecessary war. The crisis was entirely avoidable.

Saudi Arabia and the coalition it leads are known to have bombed hospitals, schools, homes and civilian infrastructure leaving Yemen in chaos. Nevertheless, powerful nations continue to fund the war without valuing the lives of those who have been affected.

Legal action should be taken without delay to ensure not only that those found guilty of complicity in very serious crimes are brought to account, but also to ensure that Britain thinks twice about continuing arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Apparently reckless decisions in Westminster have contributed to the unprecedented disaster unfolding in Yemen. A full official investigation is essential if the people of Yemen are to see an end to this brutal war which is affecting them all so badly.