Saudi forces are killing civilians in Yemen, so why is the UK still arming the regime?

Did the British government lie in court about Saudi arms deals?

Andrew Smith
1 September 2016
Air strike on Sana.jpg

Air strike on Sana'a, Yemen. Image, Ibrahem Qasim

We have a long-standing relationship with the Saudi armed forces, particularly the Royal Saudi Air Force... We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.

Philip Hammond, then UK Foreign Secretary, March 2015

It has been almost 18 months since Saudi Arabian forces intervened in the ongoing Yemeni civil war, and unfortunately the UK government has stayed true to Philip Hammond's promise. Since he made it, over 7000 people have been killed, 2.8 million have been displaced and vital infrastructure has been destroyed.

The last few weeks have seen an intensification of the bombardment. In the last fortnight Saudi forces have been accused of bombing a food factory, killing 14 people, a school, killing 10, including children, and most recently a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, killing 11. Bombs were also dropped near to a 1000,000 strong demonstration last weekend.

The United Nations (UN) has called for an international investigation into the human rights abuses that have taken place on all sides of the conflict, a move that will no doubt be resisted by the Saudi authorities.

From the limited investigations that the UN has been able to conduct, it is clear that the bombing campaign has violated international humanitarian law. Earlier this year, a leaked report documented 119 stories relating to violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) including air strikes on civilian targets and starvation being used as a war tactic.

Another report, produced earlier this month, followed-up specific allegations, again accusing the Saudi forces of deliberately bombing civilian targets. "It is almost certain that the civilian house was the deliberate target of the high explosive aircraft bombs," it said, while focusing on a particular case that killed four children. It concluded that the coalition had failed to take precautions and had "thus violated international humanitarian law."

The international pressure has forced the Saudi-led coalition to carry out its own investigation. Needless to say, what they produced was a whitewash that largely exonerated them of any wrongdoing. However, even it had to concede that civilians were being killed.

One example the Saudi report cited as a "mistake" was the bombing of a residential compound that killed 65 people, claiming that the victims died as the “unintended bombing based on inaccurate intelligence information.” The "regrets" may feel half-hearted and insincere, but the fact that even Saudi forces have had to concede the point is a sign of how overwhelming the evidence and international condemnation has been.

The political situation on the ground is in a stalemate, with another round of peace talks scheduled to take place in September. Unfortunately, with the humanitarian crisis getting worse, there is little reason to think they will be any more successful than the last ones.

Fortunately for the Saudi regime, it has always been able to rely on the unbending support of some very powerful allies. Among them is the UK government, which has only been too happy to provide weapons, support and a fig leaf of political legitimacy. Since the bombing began it has licensed over £3.3 billion worth of arms, including the same kinds of fighter jets and bombs that have been so central to the devastation.

Of course this political intimacy is nothing new. Successive governments have worked and colluded with the Saudi dictatorship. Recent years have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop a corruption investigation into arms exports to Saudi, David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet Saudi Royalty, and Prince Charles sword dancing to secure sales for BAE Systems.

This time the parliamentary consensus has began to shift. The Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat front benches have all voiced serious concerns about the humanitarian situation and joined Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Amnesty International and other NGOs in calling for greater access for aid workers and an immediate of arms sales.

Unfortunately their calls have fallen on deaf-ears, with the government refusing to even back the growing calls for an independent investigation into the conduct of the war. Despite all of the evidence, it insists that it is "satisfied that export licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK's export licensing criteria."

It’s story is falling apart though. Last month, in the final hours of the last day of parliament, the foreign office published written corrections that revealed many of its claims about the conduct of the war were false. Where the record had once said that "The MOD assessment is that the Saudi-led coalition is not targeting civilians" this was corrected to the far more equivocal "The MOD has not assessed that the Saudi-led coalition is targeting civilians."

It is a subtle but important distinction, and was typical of a series of changes that shifted the burden of responsibility and suggested that UK policy was being directed by Saudi-assurances. At best it can be seen as an act of staggering incompetence on the part of government ministers, who were effectively conceding that they had "misspoken" a number of times over a six-month period, and at worst it can be viewed as an extremely cynically timed admission that they had in fact distorted the truth.

It doesn’t stop there though. The inaccurate statements weren’t just said in parliament, some were also repeated in the High Court as part of the evidence in a hearing which saw Campaign Against Arms Trade winning the right to a judicial review into the legality of arms sales to the Saudi government for use in Yemen. Whatever the truth behind the corrections, the government has very serious questions to answer. 

The hearing, which will last three days, is expected to take place in January 2017. It will be the first time these arms exports have ever been examined in a court of law. It is definitely a welcome development. But, in the meantime, even more arms will be sold, and more lives will be destroyed.

In the last few weeks the Guardian and the New York Times have become the first mainstream newspapers to call for an embargo on arms sales and an end to hostilities. How many more Yemeni people will have to die before our government does the same?


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