By Daniel Margrain
Often overshadowed by the proxy war being fought in Syria, is the nine month old regional conflict in Yemen which ostensibly pits Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran. British-made ‘smart’ bombs dropped from British-built aircraft both of which continue to be sold in vast numbers to the Saudi’s have contributed to thousands of civilian deaths in Yemen.
Jeremy Corbyn’s peace narrative predicated on his public denunciations of the governments’ shady dealings with the Saudi Arabian regime have helped expose British involvement in Yemen even though the UK Government insists that it is not taking an active part in the military campaign in the country. However, it has issued more than 100 licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia since the State began bombing Yemen in March 2015.
Meanwhile, a Freedom of Information request revealed that a so-called ‘memorandum of understanding’ (MOU) between Home Secretary Theresa May and her Saudi counterpart Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef was signed secretly during the former’s visit to the Kingdom last year. The purpose of the MOU is to ensure that, among other secret deals, the precise details of the arms sales between the two countries is kept under wraps.
What is the extent of Britain’s role in Yemen? In September, Saudi Arabia bombed a ceramics factory in Sana’a close to the Yemeni capital which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirmed was a civilian target. Fragments of a British made missile that had been built by Marconi in the 1990s had been recovered from the scene.
With the British providing technical and other support staff to the Saudi led coalition, and UK export licenses to Saudi Arabia said to be worth more than £1.7 bn up to the first six months of 2015, the UK government’s role in the conflict appears to be to augment the support the U.S is giving to the Saudi-led coalition.
The United States, alongside the UK, has bolstered the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen through arms sales and direct military support. For example, last month, the State Department approved a billion-dollar deal to restock Saudi Arabia’s air force arsenal. The sale included thousands of air-to-ground munitions and “general purpose” bombs of the kind that, in October, the Saudi’s used to target an MSF hospital.
On the 15 December, 19 civilians were killed by a Saudi-led coalition raid in Sana’a. According to analysis by eminent international law experts commissioned by Amnesty International UK and Saferworld, by continuing to trade with Saudi Arabia in arms in the context of its military intervention and bombing campaign in Yemen, the British government is breaking national, EU and international law.
The lawyers, Professor Philippe Sands QC, Professor Andrew Clapham and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh of Matrix Chambers, conclude in their comprehensive legal opinion that, on the basis of the information available, the UK Government is acting in breach of its obligations arising under the Arms Trade Treaty, the EU Common Position on Arms Exports and the UK’s Consolidated Criteria on arms exports by continuing to authorise transfers of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia within the scope of those instruments, capable of being used in Yemen.
They conclude that:
“Any authorisation by the UK of the transfer of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia… in circumstances where such weapons are capable of being used in the conflict in Yemen, including to support its blockade of Yemeni territory, and in circumstances where their end-use is not restricted, would constitute a breach by the UK of its obligations under domestic, European and international law….The UK should halt with immediate effect all authorisations and transfers of relevant weapons pending an inquiry” (emphasis added).
According to Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK:
“This legal opinion confirms our long-held view that the continued sale of arms from the UK to Saudi Arabia is illegal, immoral and indefensible. Thousands of civilians have been killed in Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes, and there’s a real risk that misery was ‘made in Britain’.”
With a seven day ceasefire in Yemen broken on December 16, Saudi-led airstrikes have continued throughout the Christmas period as have British and American arms exports to Saudi Arabia that give rise to them. In a standard response to accusations of British complicity, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office blandly stated:
“The UK is satisfied that we are not in breach of our international obligations. We operate one of the most vigorous and transparent arms export control regimes in the world…
…We regularly raise with the Saudi Arabian-led coalition and the Houthis the need to comply with international humanitarian law…we monitor the situation carefully and have offered the Saudi authorities advice and training in this area.”
Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International’s arms trade director, added:
“There is a blatant rewriting of the rules inside the (Foreign Office). We are not supposed to supply weapons if there is a risk they could be used to violate humanitarian laws and the international arms trade treaty – which we championed. It is illogical for (Foreign Secretary) Philip Hammond to say there is no evidence of weapons supplied by the UK being misused, so we’ll keep selling them to the point where we learn they are being used.”
Journalist Iona Craig has investigated 20 Saudi-led airstrike sites in Yemen in which a total of around 150 civilians have been killed. In an interview on the December 16 edition of Channel 4 News, Craig asserted that during these strikes, which she said are a regular occurrence, the Saudi’s targeted public buses and a farmers market.
Remnants from a bomb that Craig pulled from a civilian home that killed an eighteen month old baby as well as a 4 year old and their uncle, were American made. Although Craig stated that she had not personally uncovered evidence of British made weapons, Amnesty International is nevertheless unequivocal in its damning assessment of the illegality of Britain’s role.
The fact that, as Craig stated, there are twice as many British made aircraft in the Saudi Royal air force then there are in the British Royal air force, and that the British train the Saudi air force as well as supplying it with its weapons, is by itself, tantamount to Britain being complicit in the deaths of innocent Yemeni civilians.
Craig emphasized that she has seen evidence which suggests that civilian casualties in Yemen were the result of deliberate targeting rather than “collateral damage”. Among the numerous cases the journalist has examined there have been no Houthi positions or military targets in the vicinity – a contention which she claims is supported by the pro-coalition side. The consequences of this policy for the civilian population within the poorest country in the region, has been catastrophic with an estimated 2 million people having been displaced from a nation that’s on the brink of completely falling apart.
At least 5,600 civilians have been killed in the war torn country since March. A UN study in September found that 60 per cent have died from Saudi-led aerial bombardments in the Houthi-controlled north of the country. Journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous who was based in this region commented:
“Everything has been hit, from homes to schools, restaurants, bridges, roads, a lot of civilian infrastructure. And with that, of course, comes a lot of the suffering.”
What is unfolding alongside the death and destruction in Yemen is a massive humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by the complicity of the U.S and UK, in which 21 million people – nearly double the number of people who need aid in Syria – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Consequently, levels of malnutrition have skyrocketed in the country with more than 60 per cent of Yemeni’s, according to the UN, close to starvation.
Sharif Abdel Kouddos describes the humanitarian situation unfolding in Yemen as a consequence of the imposition of a blockade on Yemen by Saudi Arabia and the coalition on a country, which:
“… comes under the rubric of a Security Council resolution—an arms embargo on the Houthi leadership….In September, 1 percent of Yemen’s fuel needs entered the country. Fuel affects everything—access for food delivery, electricity. So, Yemenis are slowly being strangled to death.”
The wider implications for British and U.S tacit support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen and the region in general is one of huge instability. Apart from the Yemeni context alone in which millions are being displaced and suffering from the onset of famine, is the broader question relating to how this situation is likely to bleed into the already ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.
But also, the conflict in Yemen involves a variety of regional players with opposing economic and geo-strategic interests – many of whom are using smaller factions to fight their battles on their behalf. These include mercenary groups from places as far away as Colombia and Panama as well as the involvement of Moroccan and Sudanese troops, all of whom are operating within one country as a part of a regional conflict that has all the makings of a much bigger one.