And so this is Christmas. The UK is mired in political crisis as the future of our planned withdrawal from the European Union hangs in the balance. It is an anxious time for us all, understandably.
But let’s turn our attention for a moment to issues of life and death – namely the unfathomable scale of humanitarian need currently facing Yemen. In our pre-occupation with domestic politics, let’s not forget the 14 million Yemeni people who are currently on the brink of famine as a result of a conflict that is claiming the lives of countless civilians.
This forgotten crisis might seem too complex and difficult for us to tackle. An entirely manmade humanitarian emergency, Yemen’s story is one of conflict, and heartbreaking story of tens of thousands of lives destroyed – some 85,000 children are thought to have died from extreme hunger in Yemen this year alone.
The elephant in the room, however, is the part our own government is playing in this catastrophic situation. On one hand, our foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt says he is committed to the UK being a values-based international actor that wants to see an end to the dire situation in Yemen, and the UK has given generously in humanitarian support.
Yet on the other hand, the last five years has seen over two-thirds of the UK’s major arms exports to Gulf Arab States, with Saudi Arabia alone accounting for 49% of all such exports. UK arms sales to Saudi since it began operations in Yemen are reported to have contributed £4.6bn to the UK’s economic prosperity. No other arms exporter comes close to this dependence on the Gulf market. The Royal Saudi Air Force is hugely dependent on British-made aircraft and missiles – maintained and supported in-country by British military and civilian technicians for its own operations. We are fuelling war instead of building peace. And we all know that conflict causes not only death and destruction but desperate poverty too.
As peace talks over Yemen conclude Friday in Sweden, some hope may emerge of the conflict ending as both sides feel the pressure of civilian suffering. We have to support any peace efforts with real action and put our money where our mouth is. We believe the UK should follow the lead of Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Finland in suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Canada may follow suit soon and the US Senate is to debate its ongoing support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Britain’s inaction is glaring in contrast.
This is exactly what we at Christian Aid are calling for in our report Resourcing War and Peace: Time to Address the UK Government’s double standards, which is published today. We want the UK government to address its own double standards in its engagement on war and peace, stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia and other states that are violating international law. We find it difficult to understand how the UK can deliberately allocate at least 50% of its development spending to conflict-affected states and regions, yet more than 50% of its arms exports are now sold to countries within those same regions that are using their militaries to wage war abroad or repress their own people. How can poverty ever be addressed in this context?
It seems the majority of British adults are with us on this. Our poll undertaken by ComRes found that three in five (61%) of British adults think the UK government should stop selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia.
Women (65%) and younger people aged between 18 and 34 (64%) were most likely to believe this; while the those aged 55+ (56%) were least likely – although the majority still think UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia should stop.
Now is the time for us to rethink this. The UK – led by the foreign secretary - should stop arms sales to all repressive regimes. At a time when we are reconsidering our role on the global stage, let’s choose not to put our own perceived national security and domestic interests ahead of the lives of people living in conflict areas who are, after all, human beings just like us.
Christine Allen is director of policy and public affairs, Christian Aid