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“If you choose the status quo, millions of Yemeni children will die. This may seem dramatic, but watching a child starve to death is dramatic.”

Iona Craig speaking in Parliament at Yemen Day 2017, 13 December

The UK has officially declared that Yemen is facing the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis’, yet the government continues to fund and facilitate the killing of thousands of civilians on a daily basis. With this article, I hope to achieve a single thing: to raise awareness of the instrumental role that the UK government must play in ending ‘the war the world ignores’ and alleviating the suffering of 20 million Yemenis.

What happened in Yemen?

In short, a civil war has been raging since March 2015 when the Houthi rebels, the militant arm of Yemen’s Shia Muslim minority, wrested power over the capital, Sana’a, from the internationally recognised government of President Hadi, a Sunni.

The domestic battle quickly became a proxy war for power over the Middle East, at least from the perspective of hegemonic Saudia Arabia. Sunni-led Saudi Arabia continually accuses regional Shia power Iran of supplying the Houthis militarily, despite Iran’s vehement denial. The Saudis are therefore leading a coalition of nine African and Middle Eastern countries who have forcefully intervened in two critical ways in the Yemen Civil War in support of the government of President Hadi and against the might of the supposed Shia Iran-Houthi alliance. Their campaign has consisted firstly of air strikes on Houthi territory, which have targeted civilians in a large proportion of cases, and secondly, a blockade preventing all imports, including food and medicine, into the country.

Although the UK is not implicated as a member of the Saudi-led multinational coalition, the operation of the airstrikes is reliant upon logistical support and intelligence from the US, UK and France and on a flow of arms licensed by the UK government directly into Saudi hands. The bombs dropping on the children of Yemen are made by British companies under the authorisation of the British government.

An exploded shell in Sana’a. The UN estimates that more than 1,000 children have been killed in Yemen during the three-year conflict, most in airstrikes by the Saudi military coalition. Photograph: Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters

The blockade, which was justified by the Saudis as an attempt to halt the alleged smuggling of weapons to the Houthi rebels from Iran, has set the country en route towards “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades”, according to Mark Lowcock, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, after a briefing with the UN Security Council. The blockade was tightened in November 2017 in response to the launch of a ballistic missile by the Houthis towards Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

However, the impact of the restrictions on civilians has prompted the International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, to declare that Saudi Arabia is “using starvation as a weapon” which is a clear breach of humanitarian law. As of today, the blockade has been lifted for a single key port in Hodeidah to permit the entry of food aid and commercial fuel into the country for a restricted period of time. It remains to be seen for how long this promise will be upheld and what the political consequences of reneging on this agreement would entail. Nevertheless, all those implicated in the coalition are potentially complicit in a war crime against humanity for the destruction that the blockade and the targeted airstrikes have caused, and will continue to cause civilians. Yet the UK remains an ‘ally’ of Saudi Arabia and a weapons trade partner.

The facts

The Yemen Data Project, an independent data collection project collecting and disseminating data on Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen since March 2015, claims that:

  • The Saudi-led coalition carried out an average of 474 air raids per month with a total of 15,489 air raids from 26th March 2015 to 15th December 2017
  • 1 in 3 of these air raids targeted non-military sites, including farms, market places, food storage sites, school buildings, hospitals, mosques and economic infrastructure.

The coalition “aimed to destroy food production and distribution” in Houthi-controlled areas according to a paper published in September 2017 by Martha Mundy, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics. She insisted that “destruction of access to food and water constitutes a war crime”. Whilst air strikes have killed 10,000 people so far, Yemen is also suffering the world’s largest cholera outbreak which has caused 815,000 suspected cases since April 2017. 

Saudi Arabia is “using starvation as a weapon” which is a clear breach of humanitarian law
Yet, the blockade which still covers most of Yemen’s access points other than the port of Hodeidah continues to prevent humanitarian aid organisations from supplying crucial food and medication to those 20 million Yemenis who are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Even in peacetime, 90% of food in Yemen is imported, thus the country is in dire need of external support to be a lifeline, one which Saudi Arabia is cutting.

British involvement

Although the Foreign Office continually points out that Britain is not a member of the Saudi-led coalition, the fact remains that circa £4.6bn in arms has come straight from Britain and into the hands of the coalition. This makes the £50m emergency aid package that the UK is set to donate pale in comparison. Damian Green, the now former First Secretary of State, defended the British government’s support for the sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia on the grounds that “our defence industry is an extremely important creator of jobs and prosperity”.

Amnesty International activists march with replica missiles during a protest against UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in London – Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Image

Furthermore, the threshold of the Arms Trade Treaty, which precludes the sale of weapons in cases where there is a risk they will be used in violations of international humanitarian law, has supposedly not yet been crossed in Yemen. International attention is the only way in which the Saudi intervention will be properly recognised as an abhorrent infringement of international humanitarian law. The British arms industry may well be a creator of jobs and prosperity in Britain whilst it fuels the Saudi-led executioners in Yemen. Its trade and alliance with Saudi Arabia brings the UK into the war room with the coalition and under the spotlight of the war crimes tribunal.

“Yemen Day” – British response and responsibility

On 13 December, the official UK investigation into the humanitarian crisis in Yemen was launched, initiated by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Yemen in advance of the 1000 day anniversary of the Yemen Civil War on 20 December. An event was hosted at the Houses of Parliament, which gave a platform to representatives from Save the Children, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Oxfam, Islamic Relief UK and the Norwegian Refugee Council who detailed the extent of the atrocities they had witnessed in Yemen in recent months. Harrowing accounts of children killed in car bombs, limbs hanging from trees and faces crushed against walls swept across a silent, grieving audience of Yemeni diaspora, MPs and journalists.

Suze Van Meegan of the Norwegian Refugee Council warned that the figures coming out of Yemen disastrously underestimate the true levels of destruction suffered. The collapsed economy, the destruction of infrastructure, the lack of education for children as a result of unpaid government wages and the physical and psychological inheritance of malnutrition on children will leave a catastrophic legacy for generations to come, Caroline Anning of Save the Children explained. “Equipment is breaking down and humanitarian access is extremely low. People queue for hours for medical access and can only do so once a week” was the report from the International Committee of the Red Cross by Yehia Khalil. These accounts will become evidential material in the official investigation.

 What did “Yemen Day” in Parliament reveal?

“In the UN, we hold the pens and we must use them” – Keith Vaz MP, Chairman of the APPG for Yemen.

The sentiment of every MP who stood forward to lend their support (including Colonel Bob Stewart, Andrew Mitchell, Richard Burden and Alison Thewliss) was that Britain stands in a powerful position on the international stage as a member of the Security Council to initiate a change. In essence, the major call amongst the British parliamentarians was for a new UN Security Council Resolution to replace Resolution 2216, adopted in 2015, which had imposed sanctions on Houthi individuals who were undermining the stability of Yemen in order to end the internal violence in Yemen.

Harrowing accounts of children killed in car bombs, limbs hanging from trees and faces crushed against walls swept across a silent, grieving audience of Yemeni diaspora, MPs and journalists
However, the focus of the international stage should now turn towards Saudi Arabia and its coalition. The MPs echoed Prime Minister Theresa May’s public call from last November for ports and airports to reopen in order for aid and medical supplies to be admitted into the country. It appears that this form of pressure from the international community has begun to force the Saudi’s hand as the port of Hodeidah has re-opened. However, the ‘full humanitarian and commercial access’ May demanded continues to be absent from the Saudi agenda and it remains to be seen whether a single port can provide sufficient access for aid workers to provide for the 20 million suffering in Yemen.

For many, what was missing was a direct call for the end of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and an end to the UK alliance with a regime implicated in mass Human Rights abuses and war crimes. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition, was an exception: “This is a man-made conflict… People are dying from entirely preventable causes.” He highlighted that the escalation of the war into a humanitarian crisis was a direct result of a political proxy war and a competition for power in the Middle East, initiated by the British government’s ally. The crisis and suffering are man-made and people’s deaths can and should be prevented. Corbyn stated that the UK must put a stop to arms sales from British companies to a country which is dropping bombs on innocent civilians. Indeed, it appears that the myriad parties to the conflict are currently united by a lack of concern of civilian life, Britain included.

Jeremy Corbyn MP (left) addressed the audience whilst Keith Vaz MP (right) chaired the event.

“It has become frustratingly clear that British weapons sales will not cease under a government of any stripe,” Iona Craig, the last accredited Western journalist in Yemen, said. “We need to have a conversation about our moral compass, which is currently broken.”

She emphasised that the inaction of the international community is a result of exhaustion. The world intervened in Syria and Iraq, but Yemen is just too far away a land, and too small a player to be of significance. There are no refugees flooding into Europe and Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, and his increasing hostility to Iran legitimised anti-Iranian movements in the Middle East and the battle being fought on Yemeni territory. Therefore, Yemen is largely ignored by the international community.

However, Craig insisted that Yemen is a forgotten war but not for want of trying. Journalistic access to the country is minimal as a result of the Saudi blockade on any transportation into Yemen as well as attacks on reporters. On 2 December, Houthis stormed the Yemen Today television channel headquarters in Sana’a and held 40 employees hostage in the building.

Ultimately, civilian lives matter little to war profiteers, which in this case includes the UK who reap the benefits of continued conflict. Although the government has called for the total removal of the Saudi blockade and is supplying £50 million in aid, this simply is not enough. The facilitating of arms sales into the hands of a government which has been proven to systematically attack civilians and can be deemed to have violated international humanitarian law must stop. It implicates Britain directly in the Yemeni humanitarian crisis. The government must draw a line under arms sales in such abhorrent conditions and stop alliances with states which conduct war crimes by using the starvation of civilians as a weapon.

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