On 10 February, new revelations showed that UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had pushed for the continuation of weapons exports to Saudi Arabia even after its shocking bombing of a Yemeni funeral in October 2016. Hundreds of those killed and wounded in this attack were allegedly civilians.
These revelations raise serious questions about where Johnson’s real priorities lie.
Johnson’s letter revealed
Yemen’s civil war is currently having a disproportionate effect on its civilian population. A low UN estimate claims the war has so far killed at least 10,000 people. And according to The Guardian, blame for civilian casualties has fallen mostly on Saudi Arabia.
Writing to Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox in November 2016, however, Boris Johnson said it was right to proceed with arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In spite of the country’s key role in Yemen’s civilian death toll. He said:
the ‘clear risk’ threshold for refusal… has not yet been reached…
The issue is extremely finely balanced, but I judge at present the Saudis appear committed both to improving processes and to taking action to address failures/individual incidents.
Johnson’s assessment apparently helped to influence Fox’s decision to continue with arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The Foreign Secretary’s letter was disclosed during current court proceedings in which Campaign Against Arms Trade is challenging the government’s decision to keep arming Saudi Arabia despite its potential war crimes in Yemen.
The impact of war on Yemeni civilians
In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Iranian-backed Houthi militias which had deposed US- and Saudi-backed dictator Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2014. The funeral airstrike in October 2016 was one of the bloodiest incidents so far in the conflict. The Saudi-led coalition claimed the attack was a mistake, based on incorrect information. But it was also an event that added to the toll of 4,600 civilians which the UN claims have died so far in the conflict.
And war crimes and destruction in Yemen were nothing new. One Human Rights Watch report from July 2016 detailed 17 unlawful strikes which killed civilians. A UN report from January 2016, meanwhile, found that Saudi-led forces had launched “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets. And Yemen’s children apparently suffered the most.
In early 2016, Unicef claimed that air strikes had killed as many as 10 children a day. Meanwhile, around 320,000 children are now severely malnourished because of the conflict; 10.2 million live without safe drinking water; 2.2 million are in need of urgent aid; 1.2 million have been displaced; and 10,000 under the age of five have died unnecessarily due to the destruction of Yemen’s healthcare systems.
Protection of civilians appears not to be Boris Johnson’s main priority. So what is?
UK export rules state that authorities should only approve licences if there isn’t a clear risk that the buyer may use the weapons for serious violations of international humanitarian law. But there almost certainly is a clear risk in the case of Saudi Arabia.
With this lucrative arms trade in mind, critics have previously slammed the government for:
- Whitewashing calls for investigations into how Saudi-led forces are using UK-made arms.
- The discovery of UK-manufactured cluster bombs in Yemen.
- The presence of British military officials in the coalition’s airstrike command centre.
A “robust” export regime? Or robust support for Saudi Arabia?
Tensions are currently rising in the Middle East. Particularly because of US President Donald Trump’s recently ‘botched’ raid in Yemen, and his attempts to troll Iran and blame it for Houthi acts. And at the same time, Trump is reportedly poised to approve a new round of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which President Obama had blocked due to human rights concerns.
In this context, military escalation in the region looks increasingly likely. And deescalation efforts are now more important than ever. But it appears that the UK cares more about supporting Saudi Arabia and earning money than it does about protecting Yemeni civilians.
Commenting on the current legal case, a spokesman for the Conservative government has said:
We operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and keep our defence exports to Saudi Arabia under careful and continual review.
In short, the government is proud of its “robust” export regime. But given the lucrative nature of British arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the high civilian toll of the Saudi-led bombing campaign, it would appear that Britain’s export control regime is not quite as “robust” as the government would like us to believe; and that Boris Johnson has currently got his priorities all wrong.
– Support Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in their vital work.
– Read The Canary’s other articles on Yemen.
– Write to Theresa May to ask why there is so much British support for Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
– Demand that your MPs take a stand on the issue.
Featured image via The Financial Times/Flickr