THE BLOG

After One Year of Conflict, Yemen Is Facing a Humanitarian Catastrophe

24/03/2016 16:58 GMT | Updated 25/03/2017 09:12 GMT

One year on from the start of the conflict, Yemen is facing a humanitarian catastrophe.

Over 19million Yemenis now lack access to safe drinking water or sanitation. Fourteen million are food insecure, over half severely so, and more than 500,000 children are severely malnourished. In the face of this, combatants on both sides have obstructed the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian aid.

Oxfam report that more than 6,100 people have been killed and 35,000 injured - an average of 113 people a day - and more than 2.4million people have been forcibly displaced by the fighting. There have been numerous reports of alleged breaches of international humanitarian law by both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis. The UK has a particularly responsibility given the arms we have supplied to Saudi Arabia, but in the face of this evidence, the British Government has been too complacent and at times dismissive.

Several NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have all reported serious potential breaches. A number of high level UN officials have spoken out too, including the United Nations' Secretary General, the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and the UN Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect.

The United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen Final Report unambiguously states: 'The panel documented that the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure'. In total the panel documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law.

UK Government Ministers repeatedly say they look at whatever evidence they receive, that reports should be properly investigated by the Saudis and that they will raise such matters with their Saudi counterparts. But, this is not good enough.

The Government's Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria state that 'the Government will... not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law'.

The Government should therefore be applying its own criteria on arms sales as any perceived failure to do so harms our national interest and undermines Britain in the eyes of the world.

In January, Jeremy Corbyn and I wrote to the Prime Minister calling for him to support a full and proper independent international inquiry into alleged violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. We also called for an immediate suspension of all sales of arms to Saudi Arabia until evidence can be provided that UK arms are not being used in any such violations. Neither of these has happened.

The cross-party International Development Committee subsequently echoed these calls, and a month ago, MEPs voted for a European Union-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia in light of what is happening in Yemen. The Committee on Arms Export Controls is considering the matter now and will publish its conclusions in due course.

The Government should have taken its responsibilities more seriously sooner, but is not too late for them to do so now.

Hilary Benn is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Leeds Central