THE BLOG

Two Years Of UK Complicity In The Destruction Of Yemen

27/03/2017 12:15
Łukasz Szczepański via Getty Images

On the morning of March 15, 2016, the market in Mastaba, Yemen, was a bustling place. People came and went to do their shopping, much like any other day. Around noon that day everything changed. By the afternoon it had become the scene of a massacre. Over 100 people were killed, including 25 children, their lives ended by 2000-pound bombs dropped by the Saudi Air Force.

It was one of the most brutal attacks of a military campaign that is about to enter its third year. It's a sign of how dangerous and deadly the situation has become when people are risking their lives by going to a market. It's not just Mastaba market, almost every aspect of people's daily lives has become a major risk, with atrocities having been unleashed on schools, hospitals and even funerals.

It is often referred to as a 'forgotten war', and one place where the voices of Yemeni people have fallen on deaf ears is Whitehall.

Right from the start of the bombing, the then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond pledged to "support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat." It's one promise the government has stuck to, regardless of the awful consequences.

Last year, a UN expert panel accused Saudi forced of "widespread and systematic" attacks on civilian targets and using starvation as a war tactic. The results have been catastrophic, with more than 10,000 people having been killed amidst the instability, the majority by the Saudi-led bombardment.

This increasing death toll is only one reflection of the terrible damage that has been inflicted on Yemeni people and infrastructure. Over two million have been displaced, with 17 million requiring urgent humanitarian assistance. Research fromUNICEF shows that over 450,000 children are suffering from severe malnutrition, with a child dying of preventable causes every ten minutes.

The instability has fuelled extremism, creating the circumstances under which it can flourish. According to the International Crisis Group, Al-Qaeda in Yemen is stronger than it has ever been and the Yemen branch of IS is showing worrying signs of growth.

The UK has pledged over £100 million in aid to Yemen, a point stressed time and again by government ministers. However, as welcome as aid is, it pales in comparison to the extensive political and military support it has offered to the conflict, including £3.3 billion worth of arms it has licensed to Saudi Arabia since the bombing began.

One clear objective is to sell even more weapons. At present, BAE Systems is being supported by Whitehall in talks to sell even more fighter jets to the Saudi military. Only two weeks ago Saudi Arabia was among those on the guest list for Security & Policing, a secretive arms fair held just outside London.

The legality of these arms sales is currently the subject to a Judicial Review, following an application by Campaign Against Arms Trade. The claim calls on the government to suspend all extant licences and stop issuing further arms export licences to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen while it holds a full review into if the exports are compatible with UK and EU legislation.

The verdict is still pending, but it may set a vital precedent for UK foreign policy. It could be instrumental in changing the hypocritical foreign policy that has underpinned the UK actions in the region, even if it cannot undo the damage that has been done.

In the short term the situation threatens to get even worse, with Yemen on the brink of famine and aid unable to reach those in need. There is no end in sight for the political stalemate that has underpinned the bombing or the ongoing civil war, and the recent botched military strikes suggest that Donald Trump's USA could play an increasingly aggressive role in the region.

We are always being told that the UK enjoys a strong influence over Saudi Arabia. If that is true then it needs to use it to call and work for a meaningful and lasting ceasefire. It must also end its own complicity and stop the arms sales. Forging lasting peace from a conflict zone is never easy, but as long as governments like the UK continue to prioritise arms company interests then it will be civilians who pay the price.

Over the last two years a brutal humanitarian crisis has been forced on the people of Yemen. It has created the circumstances under which children are dying from preventable causes and people are risking their lives when they do something as normal as going to the market. The situation is dire, and unless urgent action is taken now then there are large numbers who may not survive much longer.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

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