In 2015, the U..K government got entangled in a legal dispute: they granted their manufacturers licences to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, for use in Yemen, which was deemed a breach of international humanitarian law (IHL). Ever since then, the Ministry of Defence has been under obligation to log any other offences that would come under the same title. Yet, a series of annihilating airstrikes in Yemen, many of which involved civilian casualties, seem to have slipped the MoD’s mind. This has been recently established by parliamentary questions and highlights the fact that, while just over 500 possible breaches were recorded as of last July, human rights groups allege that the number should have been much higher, especially considering Saudi-led forces are thought to have conducted about 20,000 different airstrikes.
Andrew Smith, the spokesman for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, demands that there be “A full investigation into why these incidents have not been included, especially when all of the attacks are on civilian infrastructure and have had a civilian death toll.” However, the government say that the database of breaches cannot be published; that the information it contains covers such a wide range of assets, some of it is too sensitive to be made public. It is thus impossible to know exactly which breaches have been logged, and which have been absorbed into a black hole.
Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, claimed in July that any potential breaches committed by Saudi-led forces were not paradigmatic but instead ‘isolated incidents.’ Smith and CAAT doubt this, though, and dispute whether sufficient attention is being paid to the accuracy and consistency of this data, or if the government even cares: “Since this brutal war began, a total disregard [has been shown] for the lives and rights of people in Yemen. The civilian cost has been devastating, but that has not been enough to convince Boris Johnson and Liz Truss to end the arms sales that have fuelled the destruction.” The U.K. has supplied more than £5bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia since the conflict in Yemen first started.
The Yemen Data Project is a not-for-profit organisation that does publish a thorough list of the attacks. And, last October, their research encouraged Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, to probe deeper into what the government database really does contain. Thornberry questioned the Ministry of Defence over different incidents identified by the Yemen Data Project, such as the attack of January 2018, when a bridge and a market in Al-Mufdhah, in the Qaflah Athr district, were targeted. 17 people were killed and 20 more were left seriously injured. Another example was an assault on a funeral in the Khabb wa ash Sha’af district, in 2015, when 30 more lives were taken. In response to the questioning, the MoD confirmed that the majority of the attacks Thornberry inquired about had not been logged onto the database. One of their spokeswomen pointed to a ‘political settlement’ as the only way to end the fighting, which she claimed could “bring long-term stability to Yemen and address the worsening humanitarian crisis.”
Well, there certainly is a crisis. Perhaps if the Ministry of Defence and the government could penetrate beyond the surface of the matter, they would work out what else they could do to help protect innocent human lives. But maybe their true priorities would complicate their capacity to do so.
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