With US lawmakers gearing up to block a proposed billion-dollar sale of US arms to Saudi Arabia over concerns at mounting civilian deaths in Yemen, what will it take for politicians in the UK to do the same?
According to media reports, the cross-party parliamentary arms export controls committee is minded to call for a suspension of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Providing the committee resists pressure to water down that call, it will be yetanother influential voice urging that the UK-Saudi arms tap be turned off.
But will the government listen? Let’s put it this way – what exactly will it take to convince ministers here of the need to halt the flow of UK arms to Riyadh?
You might have thought they’d have ordered a pause when we started getting the first news of large-scale civilian deaths in Yemen. That was in mid-2015, just the first in what was to be an almost non-stop sequence of well-sourced reports that the Saudi-led military coalition’s air strikes in Yemen were reckless and indiscriminate.
But no, the weapons – the Typhoon warplanes, the missiles and the bombs – carried on flowing.
You might have thought ministers would act when, in December, a group of leading lawyers issued a comprehensive legal opinion (running to 90 pages) that the arms exports were in breach of UK, EU and wider international law. The international arms trade treaty – which the UK once championed – and our own national laws are unambiguous: where there’s a clear risk that arms sales might contribute to breaches of international law, those exports should be stopped. Nevertheless, legal responsibility or no, the weapons kept on flowing.
You might have imagined that ministers would think again when a UN report in January found that there had been 119 coalition attacks that breached international humanitarian law, with many involving “multiple airstrikes on multiple civilian objects” such as hospitals, schools, factories and homes.
Again, no. Ministers remained unconvinced of the need to halt the weapons. They needed more evidence. They were still checking with the Saudi Arabians. But meanwhile, we should rest assured, the UK has “a very robust export licensing process” (aka “one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world” enabling the UK to perform “robust case-by-case assessments”).
Robust or not, they seemed to be detecting no problem with the mounting carnage in Yemen (already well into the thousands of civilians killed and injured).
But then, in May, Amnesty International published evidence that a British-made cluster bomb had been used by the Saudi coalition in northern Yemen. The bomb, which had apparently malfunctioned, left scores of unexploded (but potentially deadly) “bomblets” scattered over a wide area near a farm in a village called Al-Khadhra. Indeed, the entire locality was littered with the debris of cluster munitions, with local farmers and goat herders telling Amnesty that the unexploded bomblets were in houses, courtyards, streets, fields, around water springs and even, according to one goat herder, “hanging off the trees”.
Unsurprisingly, there were fatalities. We documented 10 incidents in which 16 civilians, including nine children, were killed or badly injured by the cluster bombs between July 2015 and April 2016.
Again, this wasn’t enough. Despite urgent questions in the Commons, ministers again rejected calls to halt arms sales to Riyadh. Raising supposed doubts about the findings and – once again – saying they’d be seeking “clarification” from the Saudi Arabians themselves. Meanwhile, of course, the arms continued to flow, with in excess of £3.3bn of weapons licensed for export to Saudi Arabia during the devastating first year of the Yemen war alone. (To put this in perspective: this included more bombs – £1.1bn’s worth – than were sold to the rest of the world during the previous four years).
Since then there has been that entirely unreassuring set of corrections of previous ministerial statements on Saudi Arabia’s bombing operation. For example, in January Philip Hammond assured the Commons that it was the “judgment” of the government that there was “no evidence” of Saudi breaches of international humanitarian law. By July, Hammond admitted that in fact the government had been “unable to assess” precisely this question. Yet, apparently without irony, Hammond still assured MPs that “the situation is kept under careful and continual review”.
Just this week, the Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood emphasised the “unexploded” nature of that UK cluster bomb we found in Yemen. As if, somehow, a scattering of potentially deadly landmine-like devices in Yemeni villages and fields was not quite the terrible thing it might appear to be.
Ellwood seems to have forgotten that the UK, once a keen manufacturer of these obscene weapons, is now supposed to be a key opponent of their continuing use by a minority of countries in defiance of an international ban (a ban put in place precisely because of the “unexploded” nature of the bomblets they leave behind). But again, fear not, the UK has apparently “asked Saudi Arabia to … determine what is going on” over these particular cluster bombs in northern Yemen.
Notwithstanding growing disquiet on both sides of the Atlantic over how Saudi Arabia is deploying its expensive western weaponry in Yemen, the months tick by while the list of Yemeni civilians killed grows ever longer. And of course, UK arms continue to flow into Saudi Arabia’s war machine.
Author: Kate Allen