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

We are failing to protect children in Yemen

During my time at Save the Children, I’ve worked with parliamentarians across a number of different humanitarian crises and conflicts, including the Nepal earthquake, the refugee crisis and the ongoing civil war in Syria.In this context, I am struck by just how far down the priority list the crisis in Yemen continues to be. It is the largest humanitarian caseload in the world right now, thanks to a persistent and systematic abuse of the rights of its people, including the death of children.

Save the Children has been working in Yemen for over 50 years. Life for children and their families was already very difficult, and the military operation launched last year by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition (in support of the Government of Yemen against Houthi opposition forces) has made things even worse. Over half of Yemen’s population urgently need food, don’t have access to clean water and are without adequate healthcare. And thanks to bullets and bombs, the death toll keeps rising: on average six children have been killed or injured everyday since March 2015. Children have also been recruited by armed groups, abducted, and raped. Hospitals and schools – which should be safe places even in war – have been attacked and humanitarian assistance denied.

Against this backdrop, there have been regular and credible allegations that violations of international humanitarian and human rights law have been committed by all parties to the conflict. A recent UN report documented 119 incidents by Saudi-led coalition forces, including attacks on weddings, mosques, ports and markets. In two recent incidents, coalition airstrikes on marketplaces are reported to have resulted in dozens of civilian casualties, including children.

The UK government has a long and proud history of supporting Yemen. In response to the current crisis, they have used their diplomatic clout to pave the way for peace negotiations – and offered relief by intervening to ease a de-facto blockade and by providing £85 million in humanitarian aid. But the impact of UK aid on the humanitarian crisis cannot be fully realised without equal attention to the protection of civilians.

As the fourth largest donor to the crisis and with a close relationship to Saudi Arabia, the UK is in a position of influence. The Government should use this influence to push all parties to the conflict to do more to protect children and their families, and to comply with their obligations under international law.

Not only will this help to protect the children of Yemen, it will reassert the UK’s commitment to “strengthen the rules-based international order”.

As Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary General of the UN, has already warned: a growing disregard and lack of respect for international humanitarian law is “causing enormous damage in the world”. Leaders are hoping to address this at the World Humanitarian Summit which took place in Istanbul this week; the UK can play its part by ensuring that all abuses of rights are investigated, regardless of our economic and strategic interests around a particular conflict.

Echoing the recommendations in the International Development Select Committee’s recent report, given the credible evidence of disregard for civilian life and for the rules of war, the Government should support an immediate international, independent inquiry into violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen.

This move will set a positive precedent for other conflicts, and most importantly help children like Wahiha*, a 13 year old girl living in Yemen, feel safe: “I feel scared when I see weapons and especially when I hear the sound of planes up in the sky. When you hear that sound it means a big explosion will follow and that people will be killed… Hospitals and schools are damaged too.”

Denisa Delic is parliamentary and advocacy officer at Save the Children