The United Kingdom (UK) government continues to trade millions of pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. Since violence broke out in March 2015, the British government has authorized over £4.7 billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia and a further £860 million to United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition forces. Yet, these figures are likely to actually be higher, as government statistics frequently conceal the genuine value of arms exports. On 16 February 2019, the House of Lords (HOL) issued a report entitled “Yemen: giving peace a chance,” which asserted that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are inherently unlawful. The report maintains the UK government has breached international humanitarian laws, while the UN claims the strikes are responsible for up to 6,800 civilian casualties in Yemen since 2015. The war in Yemen has killed up to 57,000 people while 8.4 million are believed to be surviving on humanitarian assistance, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). While the UK is supposedly at the forefront of providing humanitarian assistance to the conflict, the current situation in Yemen must be considered a humanitarian disaster, in which the UK has played a significant role.
Another report, released on 6 March 2019 by Mwatana for Human Rights (MHR), an organization based in Yemen, has confirmed that UK weapons are being utilized by the Saudi and UAE-led coalitions to target civilians in Yemen. The report, entitled “Day of Judgement: The Role of the U.S. and Europe in Civilian Death, Destruction, and Trauma in Yemen,” revealed that between April 2015 and April 2018, there have been 27 unlawful coalition attacks, killing 203 civilians and injuring at least 749. Of the 27 attacks, UK-produced weapons are thought to be involved in 5. The MHR has also documented 128 unlawful coalition air attacks in 2018, believed to have killed 418 Yemeni civilians and wounded a further 435. In total, the Saudi and UAE-led coalitions’ campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen is believed to have killed an estimated 50,000 people since March 2015.
These figures have prompted criticism of Western States for providing Saudi Arabia and the UAE-led coalition with weapons. In response to such criticism, on 13th of February the United States (U.S.) House of Representatives rescinded military support for the ongoing campaign in Yemen. Several European countries have also suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to increasing evidence of civilian casualties in Yemen. However, the response from the UK government has been limited. Although British campaigners from Amnesty International delivered a petition with 56,000 signatures to the Department of International Trade on 18th of March, the UK government is yet to freeze arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Additionally, in February, Anna Stavrianakis reported in The Guardian that a commons committee scrutinizing UK arms export controls failed to include the Yemen conflict on the agenda.
Despite condemnation of Britain’s involvement in supplying arms to the Saudi-led forces, the UK government has not committed to changing its position on arms exports. The UK continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia in violation of international and European law, to which it holds several obligations under the UN Arms Trade Treaty and the EU Common Position on Arms Export Controls. Furthermore, the British government’s domestic legislation states that the country cannot deal weapons to nations where there is a clear risk that weapons may be used in violation of humanitarian law. The UK government is therefore in denial of its own breaches of international humanitarian law and the vast body of evidence confirming attacks on civilians in hospitals and schools in Yemen.
The British government has claimed that ceasing to provide arms to Saudi Arabia would enable Russia or China to “step in.” Not only does this reasoning ignore the UK’s obligations to international law, it defends the transfer of UK arms in terms of economic competition with the East. This illustrates the UK’s true stance on the crisis in Yemen: essentially, it rejects any humanitarian responsibility to protect the lives of Yemeni civilians but simultaneously claims to provide humanitarian aid. While Theresa May and the UK government’s rhetoric continually refers to the political context in Yemen in terms of “crisis” and “suffering,” the continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia contradict its sustained efforts to provide millions of pounds of humanitarian aid. In October 2018, the total UK bilateral support to Yemen reached over £570 million. Since then, Britain has pledged to provide £200 million in aid to Yemen for the 2019-20 financial year, from the Department for International Development’s budget. Evidently, there is a clear moral tension between the UK government’s willingness to, on the one hand, provide overseas humanitarian assistance, and on the other, profit from unlawful arms sales in the same areas of conflict that it claims to assist in alleviating violence.
Moreover, the HOL Committee Chairman, David Howell, told Al Jazeera that Britain must “challenge the apparent violations much more vigorously…review export licenses and tighten them up… which would mean closing down to some extent the flow of weapons.” This statement indicates the unwillingness of the UK government to completely withdraw from arms dealing. Even those members of the HOL that have condemned the UK’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia still abstain from entirely freezing the flow of weapons to the country. The statement from Howell suggests that the UK’s rhetoric concerning humanitarian aid in Yemen is simply a façade used by the government to disguise its unlawful involvement selling arms in yet another proxy war in the Middle East, which serves to facilitate its own economic and political interests, while ignoring the human rights of civilians in Yemen. The widespread acceptance of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia by the UK government must also be considered in the context of Britain’s exit from the European Union. The UK’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia will be an important component of British economic trade in post-Brexit Britain. This could further explain Theresa May’s increasing involvement with Saudi Arabian representatives. In this context, the international community must act fast to create suitable measures of accountability.
The UK government’s response to its unlawful arms dealings is morally and ethically inadequate. The British government is maintaining the violence which it aims to alleviate. If the war in Yemen is to end and peace be restored, the UK must stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia immediately. Instead, the UK must finally begin to practice what it preaches and work toward a peaceful solution in Yemen that will be grounded in humanitarian principles guaranteeing the protection of civilians’ human rights. The UK must direct its efforts towards encouraging a peaceful, political solution to the conflict in Yemen, which would be more in line with the supposed ‘British values’ that endorse democracy, freedom and equality.