The UK’s involvement in the war in Yemen is verging on illegality

Last year was particularly profitable for the arms industry in the United Kingdom, the world’s second biggest exporter of arms. The sector is in rude health, thanks above all to increasing demand from its favourite client, Saudi Arabia, which is waging a bloody war in Yemen. Concretely, 30 per cent of the United Kingdom’s exports of planes, missiles and bombs go to this ally, with an 11 per cent increase in contracts in the first three months of 2015. A record.

However, last year was not so good for the people of Yemen. Their country also beat a record: the highest number of civilian deaths caused by explosives, more than in Syria or Iraq.

According to the United Nations, six out of every ten deaths were caused by attacks by the Saudi Arabia led coalition. And the situation is getting worse every day, with over 10,000 deaths in 18 months of fighting.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom more and more people are voicing their concerns about the legality of this military operation and are calling for an arms embargo.

Pressure has mounted since Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, attended the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the beginning of December to discuss the country’s “post-Brexit” trade agreements with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other countries.

But what is the United Kingdom’s real involvement in this war, and why does the government refuse to reverse its position?


London and Riyadh, big trading partners

Since the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, together with Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and Sudan, came on the scene in 2015 to restore power to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and get rid of the Houthi rebels who had taken the capital, arms contracts between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia have risen to a value of £6 billion (nearly €8 billion or US$7.6 billion).

The United Kingdom, like the United States, provides the coalition with logistical support and military intelligence as well as arms. According to information revealed by the Independent newspaper, the British government is training the Saudi air force.

“Riyadh is a key trading partner,” says George Joffé, a research fellow and professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

“The main answer as to why the United Kingdom supports the coalition is as simple as it is shameful: contracts”.

Under UK arms export law it is illegal to sell arms or munitions to a state that is at “clear risk” of committing serious violations of international humanitarian law.

To date, the United Nations has recorded at least 119 coalition attacks that have violated international law, many of them including shelling civilian installations such as hospitals, schools, mosques or markets. While both sides have been accused of committing human rights violations, the number of civilian victims has shot up since the arrival of the coalition.

The most serious attack happened in October at a funeral in the capital, Sana’a, which killed 140 people and wounded 525 more. The human rights organisations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International warned of the use of cluster bombs “made in Great Britain” against civilian targets such as farms in the north of the country. Bombs which, furthermore, are proscribed by international law.

“The United Kingdom’s intervention in Yemen is absolutely illegal, even worse than in Iraq,” Kim Sharif, a British lawyer of Yemeni origin and founder of Human Rights for Yemen, told Equal Times.

In this case, “the difference is that the United Kingdom’s participation in the war in Yemen has not even been approved by parliament, it has been completely silenced. The Prime Minister and the cabinet must shoulder the consequences of a conflict in which it has become deeply involved”.

Following mounting pressure in recent weeks, parliament is divided. While the Labour Party has called for a total suspension of arms sales, others are waiting for the outcome of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) which is seeking a judicial review in the High Court. The final verdict will be known in February.

“It is essential that a detailed investigation into the bombing campaign against Saudi Arabia be carried out. If it violated international law, then those who let it happen should feel the full weight of the law,” Andrew Smith, a spokesperson for CATT, told Equal Times.

“The British government should do everything it possibly can to put an end to the war and ensure that international humanitarian law is respected.” Which would mean, he says, “changing its laws on arms exports and putting an end to its decades old toxic relationship with Saudi Arabia”.

However, the British government is firmly opposed to an arms embargo against its ally, claiming there is no conclusive proof of human rights violations. But it is also opposed to an investigation by an impartial tribunal. In October, the United Kingdom blocked a proposal by the Netherlands that the EU should ask the UN Human Rights Council to set up an independent inquiry into war crimes in Yemen.


A failed intervention

At the recent summit with the Gulf states, Theresa May showed that she was open to talking about possible human rights violations committed by Saudi Arabia, but she had not abandoned the idea that thanks to the coalition “the British are walking about the streets more safely”.

Many Tories subscribe to this idea, claiming that “non-intervention” would come at an increasingly higher cost, in a region that is already unstable and where Iran – allied with the Houthi rebels – is gaining influence and where the chaos has opened the door to the spread of terrorism by the so-called Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda.

Few analysts consider that this approach has helped stabilise the region or met any of its original objectives. “This operation contains all the elements for failure, just like every other attempt to intervene in the country since the 19th century”, explains Joffé. On the one hand, “they have not managed to reach agreement with the Houthi rebels to restore the president to power, nor will they.” On the other, “neither have they taken back control of the Hadramaut province from Al Qaeda”.

Furthermore, he says, the organisation Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has its operational headquarters in Yemen and is more influential now than it has been in the last 20 years. “Finally, it has not been capable of containing the independence movements in the south and, without any doubt, has immeasurably increased the population’s suffering”, says the academic.

The coalition has imposed a partial naval and air blockade, with a view to preventing supplies from reaching the Houthi rebels. This blockade has made the cost of foodstuffs rise sharply, in a country that is already very poor and is 90 per cent dependent on imports. As a result, about 375,000 children in Yemen are suffering severe malnutrition.

Four out of five Yemenis depend on humanitarian aid to survive, according to Amnesty International data.

“The country’s economy has been completely destroyed”, says Sharif. According to a joint report by the Islamic Development Bank and the EU, the economic cost of the war and the damage to infrastructure amounts to US$14 billion (€13 billion), a figure far below the US$80 billion that Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom’s loyal commercial ally, invests in armaments every year.

This article has been translated from Spanish.