Coronavirus hasn’t stopped bombs falling in Yemen. And our government’s complicit in death.

Young child looking out over bombed landscape in Yemen
Fréa Lockley

On 30 March, airstrikes continued in Yemen. This came only five days after a promised ceasefire intended to help Yemen’s healthcare system prepare for the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. But with the whole world in crisis, it’s vital we don’t forget that the UK is still complicit in arming devastating and destructive attacks on Yemen.


Saudi Arabia has been leading a brutal assault on Yemen since 2015. The situation was recognised as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. Although the whole world’s struggling to cope with the spread of coronavirus, the implications of cases in Yemen are even more worrying.

A press release from Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) explained that:

Yesterday saw air strikes in Yemen, this followed a day that includes violent attacks on both sides of the ongoing war. The attacks came only five days after reports that a ceasefire had been agreed to allow Yemen’s healthcare system to respond to the imminent threat of coronavirus

It continued:

Over recent weeks, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has increased distribution of protective gear and test equipment to the country in anticipation of an “explosion” of coronavirus cases. At present, there are no cases in Yemen, but it has reached Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE and other countries in the region.

But as a report from Yemeni-based human rights monitoring group Mwatana for Human Rights shows, five years of war mean this “explosion” has grave implications.

A “decimated” healthcare system

The report explains that the conflict has left Yemen’s infrastructure “in tatters”. It also warns that Yemen’s healthcare system, even before coronavirus, had “almost collapsed”. It notes that:

One of the more distinctive—and devastating—abuses of the conflict has been attacks on medical infrastructure and health workers. The warring parties have damaged or destroyed health facilities through airstrikes and shelling, depriving Yemeni civilians of desperately-needed medical services. Parties to the conflict have also occupied medical facilities, commandeered the provision of medical facility services to exclude large swathes of the population, and assaulted medical professionals, among other abuses. Together, these actions violate standards firmly rooted in international humanitarian law and international human rights law to protect health facilities, health workers, and patients during conflict.

Already, this war has “decimated Yemen’s health system”. And even without coronavirus, the country faces other huge medical threats. CAAT explained that on 9 March, Oxfam warned:

of the possibility of another outbreak of cholera. Since the war began five years ago there have already been 2.3 million suspected cases.

In addition to this, ongoing “destruction has left the system operating at 50 percent of its capacity at a time when 24 million people need aid”. CAAT’s Andrew Smith said coronavirus in Yemen puts “even greater strain” on a healthcare system that’s already “stretched to breaking point”.

Complicit in death

As bombing continues, the UK’s fully complicit in escalating this crisis. According to CAAT, since 2015, “the UK has licensed £5.3 billion worth of arms to the Saudi regime” but:

In reality the figures are likely to be a great deal higher, with most bombs and missiles being licensed via the opaque and secretive Open Licence system.

In June 2019, UK arms sales to the Saudi regime went on hold after the Court of Appeal ruled they were “irrational and therefore unlawful”. However, as CAAT noted, this didn’t “stop arms from being transferred under extant licences”. And the government still hasn’t “published a timeline” to end these sales.

As The Canary reported, research from Mark Curtis also revealed that the UK’s role in this brutal war is “notably under-reported” by the establishment media.

Mwatana’s chair Radhya al-Mutawakel stressed that:

Those supplying weapons and other forms of support to the warring parties – be they in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Iran, or other states – prolong Yemen’s misery and are complicit in the pervasive abuses documented in [the Mwatana] report.

Yet even while profiting from arms deals, the US is reportedly cutting humanitarian aid to Yemen:

Smith said it’s “vital” to end “this devastating war”. He also called for the UK “and other arms dealing governments” to “finally stop arming and supporting this brutal bombardment and end the uncritical political and military support” given to Saudi Arabia.

Challenging as this crisis is for everyone, we don’t face daily bombing and still have a working healthcare system. As the pandemic continues, it’s vital not to forget people in Yemen. And we have to keep pressure on our government to stop profiting from death.

Featured image via Flickr – Felton Davis

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