Next week marks the third anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the war in neighbouring Yemen. The way this war is being conducted by the Saudi-led coalition has exacerbated an already poor humanitarian situation, turning it into a full-blown humanitarian crisis - the “worst in the world” according to the United Nations. Some 1.8 million Yemeni children are acutely malnourished, there are more than one million suspected cases of cholera, and 8.4 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine.
Yet the British government has been one of the strongest backers of the Saudis and their Gulf-led coalition. It has provided largely uncritical support for Saudi’s role in the war, as well as selling the Saudis £4.6 billion of military equipment over this period, seemingly ignoring its own rules about not selling arms when they are likely to be used unlawfully. British officials have also been present in Saudi Arabia throughout, advising their Saudi counterparts - according to the British Ministry of Defence - on how to conduct their military operations in a way that is consistent with the laws of war. At the same time, Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) is the third largest funder of humanitarian relief efforts in Yemen.
So how does the British Government defend such an incoherent policy towards Yemen? Ministers insist that staying close to the Saudis and offering advice privately is the most effective way to influence Saudi actions, alongside military advice and practical support through arms sales.
But three years on, this approach has delivered precious little: neither an end to coalition abuses, nor a reduction in the terrible civilian suffering.
This was confirmed beyond doubt by the recent visit to Britain of the Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS for short. British ministers rolled out the red carpet for MBS, talked up his promises of reform, cut business deals, agreed to an aid package, and authorised the sale of 48 Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi – all without appearing to extract any meaningful change in Saudi policy towards Yemen. There were three main areas of failure.
Firstly, the UK claims that it welcomes Saudi’s “continuing commitment” to conduct its military campaign “in accordance with international humanitarian law”. But this claim is absurd – not just false, but pure fantasy. Throughout the three years of the war, the Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly violated the laws of war, launching air strikes on schools, hospitals, markets and mosques – and it continues to do so. Through rigorous on-site inspections and other research, Human Rights Watch has documented 87 unlawful attacks by the Saudi-led coalition, which together have killed nearly 1,000 civilians. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes. Amnesty International, the UN and others have documented other unlawful strikes by the coalition, and, like us, abuses by the opposing Houthi forces.
Secondly, there has been an almost complete failure with respect to accountability. If British diplomacy was working, the coalition would surely be willing to properly investigate these alleged unlawful strikes. But the coalition has shown scant interest in doing so and the coalition’s own process – the Joint Investigation Advisory Team (JIAT) - has been slammed by the UN as “wholly insufficient”. A tiny proportion of air strikes have been investigated by JIAT and, so far, it appears not a single Saudi, Emirati or other coalition officer has been held to account for any violation or crime committed during three years of this war.
Thirdly, British ministers claim to have pressed the Saudis hard on humanitarian access to Yemen. But while the coalition has eased some of the most draconian restrictions on aid and access, it is still making it extremely difficult for humanitarian goods and commercial supplies to get into all parts of the country. Given the gravity of the crisis, Yemen needs a concerted effort to facilitate the flow of aid through all land and sea ports, and action to ensure aid does not continue to be politicised. Britain’s efforts to date have failed to secure this.
With no end in sight to this abusive war, the British government needs to rethink its approach to Saudi Arabia and the Yemen conflict. By supplying vast quantities of arms to the Saudis, when the laws of war are routinely violated, Britain risks complicity in war crimes. And by failing to speak out against the illegal airstrikes and the lives lost due to Saudi restrictions over key Yemeni ports, Britain’s commendable humanitarian efforts through DFID will be gravely undermined and irrevocably tarnished. A more principled and public British diplomacy is desperately needed on Yemen.