The British government has an enduring relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country implicated in flagrant breaches of human rights both at home and abroad.Number 10 | Flickr

The 2019 Conservative Manifesto reads: ‘the UK has long been a beacon of freedom and human rights - and will continue to be so’. Yet Boris Johnson’s government persists in licensing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners as they wage a destructive war in Yemen. This policy is morally bankrupt and has helped to facilitate the severe crimes that have been taking place since the conflict began in 2015. If the British government was in any way serious about defending human rights, it would end these arms sales immediately.

For context, it must not be forgotten that what is happening in Yemen has been deemed the worst humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in the world by the UN. Over 100,000 people have died as a result of the conflict. 20 million people in the country are food insecure, half of whom are suffering from extreme hunger. The pandemic has only added to Yemen’s crises. What the British government is doing amounts to aiding and abetting some of the principal engineers of this humanitarian catastrophe.

Authoritative and reputable organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, all agree that the Saudi-led coalition has engaged in a long list of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, and have called for an end to the sale of arms to the parties involved in the Yemen war. The British state has obstinately refused to heed these calls, revealing its sheer contempt for the rule of law.

As the full extent of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has become clear, many governments have come under pressure to cut their ties with the Saudi regime.Alisdare Hickson | Flickr

A 2018 UN report on the human rights situation in Yemen states that from March 2015 to June 2018 ‘coalition air strikes (…) caused most of the documented civilian casualties’ in the war. The report goes on to say that ‘residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities’ have been attacked by the Saudi-led coalition. The British government actively supports this lawless conduct by allowing the flow of arms to continue to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. Further to this, a September 2020 report by UN experts concluded that there were ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that coalition forces, particularly those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have committed ‘acts that may amount to war crimes’. The report recommended that other states should ‘prohibit the authorization of transfers of, and refrain from providing, arms that could be used in the conflict’. The very risk of the use of British arms to commit war crimes, let alone the evidence that British arms have actually been used to attack civilians, should disqualify the continuation of arms sales as a political option. But the Conservative government proceeds with impunity.

The supply of these British weapons is undoubtedly significant. The British government has licensed £5.4 billion worth of arms exports to Saudi Arabia since 2015, and it is therefore no surprise that British arms have been employed in attacks on civilian targets. Saudi Arabia has used British missiles, British Typhoon and Tornado aircraft, and British precision bombs. In September 2016, the House of Commons’ International Development Committee and Business, Innovation and Skills Committee found in a joint report that given the evidence, ‘it seems inevitable that any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the coalition have involved arms supplied from the UK’.

“The crimes being perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition are not ‘isolated incidents’ by any measure.”

Alongside this military support, the British government unabashedly lies to the public on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition. In July 2020, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss exemplified this mendacity when she stated that Saudi Arabia’s ‘possible’ violations of international humanitarian law were ‘isolated incidents’. In contrast to Truss’ claim, Amnesty International has referred to ‘a pattern of appalling disregard for civilian lives displayed by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’, and the UN experts on Yemen have stated that ‘the scale and nature of violations’ in the war ‘should shock the conscience of humanity’. The crimes being perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition are not ‘isolated incidents’ by any measure. Even the British Ministry of Defence has documented more than 500 instances of Saudi air raids that may have breached international law. The government, sickeningly, ignores these facts and instead propagandises for the despotic Saudi regime.

Some countries have done the right thing and ended their arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. On 29 January, the Italian government decided to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of their abhorrent actions in Yemen. The Biden administration has also paused arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, though Washington’s next steps remain to be seen. The British government should also do the right thing and take the long overdue decision to immediately end arms sales and other forms of support for the war. Every day that the government refuses to do so represents its failure to live up to the most basic moral standards.


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The unfortunate conclusion that one is forced to reach is that the government regards the profits of arms companies and its defence relationship with Saudi Arabia as more important than the many civilian deaths that these arms sales have contributed to. The government points to violations committed by the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen, which have certainly been documented, but the government does not support Houthi crimes. It has, however, been abetting the Saudi-led coalition’s crimes and has the ability to stop doing so.

Instead of fuelling the conflict with weapons, the British government should support diplomatic efforts to achieve an end to hostilities, accountability for those guilty of crimes and a lasting peace. Additionally, it is evident that the British arms export system is in dire need of investigation and reform - it is unconscionable that arms sales could continue for so long despite the copious evidence of their devastating effects.

Those of us who are British citizens have a democratic duty to hold our leaders accountable for what they have done and continue to do. The role of the British state since 2015 in supporting criminal atrocities in Yemen must not be forgotten.