“Our hearts go out to the families of those killed.” These were the words of the International Development Minister, Harriet Baldwin, last Tuesday when she updated the House of Commons on the humanitarian situation in Yemen.
She was commenting in the aftermath of a Saudi air strike last Monday morning, which had hit a wedding: killing at least 20 people including the bride. In the few seconds it has taken for the bombs to fall, a scene that was meant to be a celebration was turned into a massacre.
It wasn’t even the first time that Saudi-led forces have bombed a wedding. In 2015 they hit a wedding 60 miles south of Yemen’s capital, killing 57 people. Similarly, December 2017 saw 10 women killed in a similar attack.
It is civilians that have paid the terrible price of the bombardment. Thousands have been killed as a direct result of the bombing, with many more dying as a result of the appalling humanitarian crisis that has unfolded as a result of the bombing.
One point the minister didn’t mention was that the forces responsible for the bombing have been armed and supported every step of the way by successive UK governments. Since the Saudi-led bombing campaign began in 2015 the UK has licensed £4.6billion worth of fighter jets and bombs to the regime.
Baldwin’s concerns were shared by Boris Johnson, who turned to Twitter to express his condolences, and to welcome that the same Saudi regime that had carried out the bombing was going to investigate itself for war crimes.
It is not the first time Johnson has suggested that the perpetrators of such atrocities are the best equipped to hold themselves accountable. Indeed he has consistently rejected calls for independent investigations on the basis that he believes Saudi forces to be better equipped for the task.
In 2016 he told MPs: “It is important that the Saudi Arabian-led Coalition in the first instance conducts thorough and conclusive investigations into incidents where it is alleged that international humanitarian law (IHL) has been violated. They have the best insight into their own military procedures and will be able to conduct the most thorough and conclusive investigations.”
Johnson’s argument is clearly a moral absurdity, and puts the words of one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships above any form of natural justice for those impacted by the devastating assaults taking place. But, even if we put that to one side, the limited steps the Saudi authorities have taken expose how bad a policy this is.
In an update to parliament in February 2018, it was announced that the Ministry of Defence was aware of 318 possible breaches of international humanitarian law committed by Saudi-led forces in Yemen. These includes the bombing of schools, hospitals and other vital civilian infrastructure. Of these, only 15% had been investigated. Where investigations have taken place they have been a whitewash.
The total failure to adequately investigate war crimes is symptomatic of a brutal war that has been fuelled by the political and military support of compliant powers like the government in Downing Street.
This March the people of London saw how deep that establishment support runs. The capital was covered in colourful banners and posters as the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, touched down in Heathrow for a three day visit. In his other role as Defence Minister, the Crown Prince has been the main architect of the war.
While in London he received the reddest of red carpet treatments; enjoying meetings with Theresa May, the Queen, Prince William and Prince Charles. Despite May’s promises to talk “frankly and constructively” about the suffering in Yemen, the Crown Prince was given a major PR coup and the explicit endorsement of the UK on the world stage.
As the war enters its fourth year the situation couldn’t be more desperate. The people of Yemen don’t need ‘the hearts’ of UK ministers, they need an end to the bombardment. As long as fighter jets are being flown overhead and bombs are being dropped from the sky then things won’t get any better.
After three years of devastation it’s long past time for a change. If Baldwin, Johnson and May want to improve the situation then they need to end their complicity in the destruction. It’s time for them to finally put the interests of Yemenis above those of the arms companies.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.