Recent UN calls for a ceasefire in Yemen to curb the spread of Covid-19 may be absent from front pages in the UK, but their significance for the prospects of bringing an end to Yemen’s catastrophic war will not be lost on Yemenis.
The progress of this war, which has seen horrific international law violations by the Saudi and UAE-led coalition, the Yemeni government and forces loyal to it, and the Houthi armed group they are fighting, should concern the British public given the country’s critical support for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates through the sale of weapons. Since March 2015, Coalition airstrikes have played a defining role in the decimation of Yemeni civilian life, through bombings of civilian gatherings, homes and essential infrastructure. Since March 2015, more than £11 bn worth of UK arms have been licensed to Saudi Arabia.
When Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary, he used his decisive influence in the arms licensing process to recommend approval of the continued sale of weapons by British companies to Saudi Arabia, despite strong evidence that the Coalition had been carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate strikes on civilians and civilian property in violation of international humanitarian law. The prime minister’s casual approach to Yemeni civilian life was astounding.
When the Coalition’s intervention began, it became very clear very quickly to Yemeni civilians that Coalition strikes were gravely endangering them. By 2016, the Coalition had killed or wounded thousands of civilians, including in dozens of apparently unlawful attacks documented by the UN and international and Yemeni human rights NGOs, like Mwatana.
Boris Johnson used his decisive influence in the arms licensing process to recommend approval of the continued sale of weapons by British companies to Saudi Arabia
But the Coalition continued to shock. On the afternoon of 8 October 2016, a community hall near Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, was filled with about 1,500 men and boys, paying their respects at the public funeral of the father of Yemen’s Houthi appointed interior minister. At 3.30 pm, the packed event - high-profile and advertised on Facebook – was attacked by coalition aircraft, killing at least 84 and injuring at least 550.
Those not incapacitated by the first airstrike tried to save themselves by jumping out of second-storey windows, sustaining further injuries. Others stayed behind and were killed by the strikes that followed. As one of the injured victims, Esam Al-Rawishan (25) told a Mwatana researcher, “It never even occurred to me that they would bomb a funeral hall.”
When reflecting on whether or not to continue weapons sales after a massacre such as this, not many would arrive at the phrase “extremely finely balanced.” That is the wording Johnson used in an internal memo less than a month later when he communicated his recommendation for licenses to Saudi Arabia to continue.
The memo’s language, which characterises the continued supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia as a nuanced issue, implied the government was giving the decision the scrutiny it deserved. The truth later emerged in the course of litigation brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT): the government was not even studying individual airstrikes closely enough to take a view on whether they had violated international law. This flaw in process was so fundamental as to cause the UK’s Court of Appeal to quash the licensing decisions in June 2019 on so-called ‘rationality’ grounds – a notoriously difficult threshold to meet. The UK government has yet to decide whether it will grant further licenses to Saudi Arabia or suspend extant licenses – but the limits of the public law remedy ordered by the Court of Appeal have meant that transfers under old licenses are allowed to continue.
The CAAT decision is an important step and should be celebrated, but the UK government is currently appealing, and legal proceedings are slow and imperfect. While the case and others like it work their way slowly through judicial systems, Coalition airstrikes continue to kill and maim Yemeni civilians, often using western weapons.
A government led by Boris Johnson must also be subjected to rigorous parliamentary scrutiny, something that would be delivered by a properly constituted Select Committee. The last Parliament’s Committee on Arms Exports Controls ceased to exist when the general election was called in December 2019, and efforts are underway to push for a full Select Committee. It has been more than nine months since our organisations gave the government detailed, overwhelming evidence that the Coalition flouts international law and then whitewashes the consequences, yet the responsible minister has failed to respond.
As the litany of appalling civilian tragedies continues, we are calling for the UK Parliament to establish an arms exports Select Committee without delay. To highlight the urgent need for renewed scrutiny, we at Mwatana and GLAN are releasing the evidence, along with international law analysis and a formal submission, in anticipation of a much-needed Committee. Evidence like this needs to be actively considered and highlights the urgent need to ensure that this government adheres to its moral and legal obligations to deny licenses where there is a clear risk of the weapons being used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law.
Boris Johnson’s 2016 memo – comprising seven lines - determined that licenses could continue because “the Saudis appear committed both to improving processes and to taking action to address failures/individual incidents.” Our submission shows that the government should never have relied on such worthless assurances, and that the UK has ample evidence that, without further action on the part of the UK and other arms-supplying states, coalition-inflicted tragedies have continued, and almost certainly will continue, for Yemenis.
Arms licensing to Saudi Arabia—and the UAE for that matter—is not a regular industry that provides regular jobs, it is a life-or-death issue for Yemenis
The government did not change course after a large wedding party in Hajjah was attacked in April 2018, killing 21 civilians; nor did sales cease after a newly-built MSF cholera treatment centre (whose red crescents were so large as to be visible on satellite imagery) was bombed in June 2018. Eight days after the CAAT Court of Appeal judgment, the Coalition bombed a family home in Taiz, killing six civilians including three children, and on 31 August 2019, at least 97 people were killed, including seven children, when a Houthi detention centre was attacked by the Coalition.
After more than five years, governments, including the UK, can no longer credibly claim to be fooled by coalition promises. They have too often proven hollow, too often shown to be nothing more than window-dressing in an effort to keep arms flowing.
Arms licensing to Saudi Arabia—and the UAE for that matter—is not a regular industry that provides regular jobs, it is a life-or-death issue for Yemenis, and it should be of concern to the British public and companies that operate under government licenses. Parliamentary oversight could serve as a check on the government continuing to involve the nation in violations of international law.