How British Government policy on Yemen has become a fiasco

The following article by Stephen Bell, on British policy on Yemen, was previously published by Stop the war coalition.

For some time now international pressure has been building up against the Saudi-led war upon Yemen. In February this year, the European Parliament voted for an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. Recently, 64 members of the US Congress, from both Democrats and Republicans, called upon President Obama to “postpone sales of new arms” to Saudi Arabia.

A string of credible reports, including from the UN, have pointed to breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL) in the Saudi bombing campaign. The most recent of these, from the Yemen Data Project, identified 942 attacks upon residential areas, 114 on markets, 34 on mosques, 147 on school buildings, 26 on universities and 378 on transport. The Saudi Coalition has hit more non-military than military sites. Nor can these be set aside as mistakes in the heat of battle. A school building in Dhubab, Taiz govenorate, has been hit 9 times. A market in Sirwah, Marib govenorate, has been hit 24 times. The failure to advance strategically has led the Saudis to hit out wildly at Yemen’s population.

In spite of the mounting evidence, the British government is refusing to budge in its support for the Saudis’ war. It knows very well that the UN-declared Level 3 emergency in Yemen represents a humanitarian crisis. In the Commons debate on September 5th, Foreign Office minister, Tobias Ellwood acknowledged the problems the war and siege has created for Yemen. He stated that “in July only 43% of the monthly food needs and only 23% of the fuel needs were met in that country”. Yet the government continues to arm the Saudis.

In truth, recent months have seen the British government policy descend into fiasco. On July 21st the government issued a Ministerial Correction, on the last day that Parliament was sitting. This amended a number of previous statements by ministers which had suggested that the government was satisfied that IHL was not being breached and that civilians were not being targeted. The Correction was that the government had been unable to verify that IHL was not being breached, or that civilians were not being targeted. In one, the government stance glided from confident assertion to clueless bewilderment.

The fiasco has been made definitive with the publication of two contradictory House of Commons reports under the same title, “The use of UK manufactured arms in Yemen”. Four Commons Select Committees met jointly to consider submissions on the subject – these were Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC); Defence; Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and International Development Committee (IDC). Despite hearing the same evidence, BIS and IDC published a report that concluded with the need for an arms embargo. The FAC and Defence disagreed, and the FAC published a report opposing an arms embargo. It should be pointed out that the Tory party has a majority on all four committees.

The BIS/IDC report highlights the growing incoherence of government policy. “The UK government has not responded to allegations of IHL breaches by the Saudi-led coalition in any meaningful way and we are concerned that our support for the coalition, principally through arms sales, is having the effect of conferring legitimacy on its activities” (BIS/IDC report p.13). Of course the connection is not limited to arms sales. The report emphasises the direct connection of the British state with the conflict. “Our involvement extends from providing the planes and bombs for airstrikes to UK personnel in the Joint Combined Planning Cell and Saudi Air Operations Centre. This level of involvement without being a party to the conflict is unprecedented and is a result of the ‘privileged’ relationship the UK has with Saudi Arabia and its armed forces” (BIS/IDC report p.31).

But despite this “unprecedented” involvement, even Parliamentary Select Committees can’t get clarity from the Tory government about the size, nature and precise activity of British personnel and BAE Systems employees. After all, ministers told the Committees that British personnel were not part of “intelligence planning cells”, but that they are in the “Joint Combined Planning Cell HQ”.  The same ministers told the Committees that “UK personnel are in Saudi Arabia to train, educate and teach best practice, which includes understanding IHL and training air crews and planners how to go about assessing targets for the future, but that our liaison officers do not provide training, they do not provide advice on IHL compliance, and they have no role in the Saudi targeting chain” (BIS/IDC report p31). Once again, the government glides from confident assertion to clueless bewilderment.

The Ministerial Correction of July 21st demonstrated that the government has not made an assessment of any breaches of IHL by the Saudis. This raises serious legal issues, given the risk that arms sold to Saudi Arabia might be used in violation of IHL. Potentially this means the British government is in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty at the international law level; the EU common position at the EU law level; and the consolidated EU and UK arms export licensing criteria at the domestic, UK law level. Perhaps this has made the Tory government more cautious about these arms sales? On the contrary, the Committees were told that the processing time for licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia has accelerated from a medium of 25 days in April 2015, to 12 days in December 2015. It seems that the government is infected with the Saudis’ growing recklessness in the war.

One obvious source of chaos in government policy is the contradiction of arming the Saudis whilst supporting development aid to Yemen. Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Britain provided £247.8m of aid between 2011 and 2014, and plans to provide £80m in 2015/16. However the war has forced DFID to withdraw its staff from Yemen, and suspend its longer term development programmes. Meanwhile, according to a joint report by the World Bank, United Nations, Islamic Development Bank and European Union, published in August 2016, the war has cost Yemen $14bn in infrastructure damage and economic losses.

Some of this damage comes from the £1.8bn of combat aircraft and more than £1bn of bombs and missiles sold by Britain to the Saudis between 1 April and 30 September 2015. The UK Working Group on Arms told the Committees: “To put this… figure in context, the value of munitions licensed for export to Saudi Arabia… in the three months from July to September 2015 is equivalent to the total that was licensed for export to the whole world (including Saudi Arabia) in the four and a half years from January 2011 to June 2015” (BIS/IDC report p28). Clearly this is more profitable than Yemen’s development, so that side of government policy is quietly disposed.

Overall the BIS/IDC report makes a compelling case for an immediate arms embargo. The FAC attempts to make the opposite case, in support of the government’s policy. All it succeeds in compelling is a sense of nausea. One of the richest countries in the world is attacking one of the poorest, and the FAC concludes “we should be grateful for the Saudi-led intervention” (FAC report p10).

In response to evidence of IHL breaches, the FAC believes we should allow the Saudis to report on their investigations, before considering any action. Instances of these are downplayed and omitted from the FAC report. Issues of potential legal breaches by the British government in arming the Saudis are dismissed as proper for the courts to decide, rather than by politicians. Issues of international development are completely omitted from the FAC report. Any question to the government record is set aside by refusing to make any reference to the July 21st Ministerial Correction. Unsurprisingly, the report is very effusive about the contribution of the arms industry.

The whole outcome of the report, and that of government policy, is premised on fantasy. “A strong and durable relationship with Saudi Arabia has enhanced the United Kingdom’s work in advancing many of our shared and vital strategic interests. These include military action against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, combatting manifestations of violent extremism and radicalisation, countering terrorist financing, confronting Iranian subversion of the existing state systems across the region, and providing immediate relief and long term solutions for Syrian refugees” (FAC report p22). No amount of whitewash hides the bloodstains. The momentum for an arms embargo is growing, and it needs our continued support.


This article was previously published here by the Stop the War Coalition.