Saudi Arabia

Britain’s policy on Saudi Arabia has worsened suffering in Yemen

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.

David Mepham is UK director of Human Rights Watch. He tweets @mephamd

Does the death penalty deter crime?

Fifty one years ago the United Kingdom became the fourteenth country to officially abolish the death penalty. By 1977, 16 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Today, the number has risen to 140.

However, while the number of countries practising the death penalty has continued to decline, the number of people executed has increased in recent years. According to Amnesty International, more people were executed worldwide in 2015 than in any year since 1989. Three countries were responsible for almost 90% of the executions in 2015; Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

One of the key justifications for the use of the death penalty is that it deters crime. For example, Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, who has presided over the execution of over 1,200 people since his election in 2014, has argued that abolishing the death penalty would lead to a rise in crime in the country. This article explores the evidence behind those claims.

Evidence from America

The United States has provided an excellent venue for researchers examining the question of whether the death penalty deters crime. The US provides such a good environment for two reasons. First, the use of the death penalty varies between individual states. This allows researchers to compare crime rates between states that retain capital punishment and states that do not. Second, in 1972, the US Supreme Court effectively abolished the death penalty for four years. This created an ideal natural experiment for which researchers could compare crime rates during the ‘moratorium’ and before or after it.

Comparing US states

A number of studies have shown that states with the death penalty generally experience higher homicide rates than states without it. For example, Amnesty International found that the murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained consistently lower than the rate in states with the death penalty. The New York Times have reported similar findings. They found that the 83% of US states without the death penalty had homicide rates below the national average.

The ‘moratorium’

A number of studies have purported to show that the US Supreme Court’s decision to effectively abolish capital punishment in 1972 led to an increase in homicide rates. For example, one study compared the homicide rate during the moratorium (1972 - 1976) with the homicide rate after the moratorium (1977 - 1997). The authors find a substantial deterrent effect. They conclude that the "data indicates that murder rates increased immediately after the moratorium was imposed and decreased directly after the moratorium was lifted, providing support for the deterrence hypothesis.”

Ostensibly, the increase in homicide rates during the moratorium and subsequent decrease after provide a compelling case for the the deterrent effect of capital punishment. However, more recently these studies have faced significant criticism. The aforementioned study only compared states that were affected by the Supreme Court’s decision. That is, they only examined states that had the death penalty in 1971 and had reinstated it by 1977. A later study also included states that were not affected by the Supreme Court’s decision because they had abolished the death penalty prior to 1972. Using these states as a control group, the authors were able to show that the moratorium did not cause a rise in homicide rates.

American exceptionalism?

While the evidence from the United States suggest that the death penalty does not have a detrimental effect on crime rates, it is possible these results may not be applicable to the rest of the world.

Comparing the crime rates of countries which retain the death penalty and countries which have abolished it is problematic. This is because the vast cultural differences between countries can obscure trends and relationships. Because of this, researchers have tended to examine crime rates in countries that have abolished the death penalty, before and after.

For example, one study examined the abolition of the death penalty in Canada. The study found that the homicide rate per 100,000 of the population fell from a peak of 3.09 in 1975, the year before the death penalty for murder was abolished, to 2.41 in 1980. The homicide rate in Canada has remained significantly lower than before abolition ever since. A further study examined the murder rates in Hong Kong for a 35-year period beginning in 1973 and found that the abolition of capital punishment had little impact on crime levels.


The number of countries abolishing the death penalty continues to rise but, at the same time, the number of people being executed has experienced a recent rise. This is an extremely worrying trend. One of the leading justifications for the use of the death penalty is that it deters crime. This claim has been repeatedly tested by researchers. The majority of research from both the US and worldwide has found no evidence of a deterrence effect.

James Dobson is a researcher for Bright Blue