Why is Britain still selling Saudi Arabia arms to use in Yemen?

Labour MPs need to unite behind the UN, NGOs and Jeremy Corbyn’s demand for a suspension of weapons sales and an investigation of their use in Yemen

Houthi supporters in Sana’a at a rally commemorating the start of the Saudi-led military campaign, on 26 March 2016. ‘About 80% of the population are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.’ Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA
Houthi supporters in Sana’a at a rally commemorating the start of the Saudi-led military campaign, on 26 March 2016. ‘About 80% of the population are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.’ Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

In the House of Commons debate on intervention in Syria last December, one message rang out loud and clear: Britain will not tolerate indiscriminate violence committed by extremists, and will act decisively to counter any threat to our national security.

The year-old Saudi-led campaign in Yemen has claimed more than 6,400 lives – more than were killed in the three recent wars over Gaza put together – and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe that the UN has placed in the same class of severity as that in Syria. More than 20 million people, about 80% of the population, are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. Among the dead are more than 900 children, nearly three-quarters of them killed by coalition bombing,according to Save the Children. In one incident reported by the charity, several infants died after their ventilators cut out when a paediatric hospital was damaged in an airstrike.

A report by a UN panel, leaked to the Guardian in January, described “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets, specifically citing “119 coalition sorties … [including] three alleged cases of civilians fleeing residential bombings and being chased and shot at by helicopters”. Earlier investigations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also documented a pattern of such violations, some of which were said to amount to outright war crimes. Concern at the Saudis’ indiscriminate bombing has also been raised by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN high commissioner for human rights and theEuropean parliament.

Part of a Saudi fighter jet found near Yemen’s capital Sana’a
Part of a Saudi fighter jet found in Bani Harith district north of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in 2015. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Consequently, the UN secretary general, Save the Children, Amnesty International, HRW, and many others have called on the UK to suspend its arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Two separate pieces of legal advice provided to Saferworld and Amnesty International, and to the organisation I work with, Campaign Against Arms Trade, state that these sales are illegal, given the clear risks of how the weapons are likely be used. CAAT has since launched a formal legal challengein the high court to halt the sales on those grounds.

The response from the British government has been thoroughly cynical. Twice before parliament last year, the Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood claimed not to be aware of any evidence of Saudi violations of international law, simply ignoring the world’s leading human rights organisations, who had been documenting such violations from day one.

David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, accused ministers and officials of “shamelessly and disingenuously” adopting the pretence that there is an absence of evidence. Subsequently changing tack, the government now claims to have carried out its own investigations and found nothing untoward, which flies in the face of the unanimous view from credible sources. And so, as revealed by the latest figures, the arms sales continue, even as the current fragile ceasefire in Yemen begins to break down.

An in-depth report on the UK’s military alliance with Saudi Arabia, published this month by CAAT, shows that British complicity in the horrors of Yemen is but the most recent and overt manifestation of the deep relationship between London and Riyadh. For decades the UK has provided arms capable of being used for external aggression and internal repression to one of the cruellest and most anti-democratic regimes in the world.

This has involved some of the most lucrative weapons contracts ever signed, for combat aircraft currently being used in Yemen, as well as substantial and ongoing military cooperation and support. In 2011 UK-trained Saudi troops travelling in UK-supplied armoured vehicles moved into Bahrain to assist the violent crushing of pro-democracy protests. British arms and support have helped buttress the Saudi royals ever since they imposed their austere and extreme form of rule on the diverse populations of the Arabian peninsula a hundred years ago.

Labour has called for an immediate suspension of arms sales to the Saudis and an investigation of their use in Yemen, a welcome change from New Labour’s policy of full support for Riyadh. Tony Blair quashed a Serious Fraud Office investigation into corruption surrounding major weapons contracts, and Gordon Brown signed off on the most recent sale of combat aircraft in one of his first acts as prime minister. If hitherto quiet Labour MPs could support their leadership now on Yemen with the same passion they showed in supporting the government over bombing Syria last December, they could help atone for their party’s past record, and maybe offer some hope for Yemen’s suffering population.

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