By Mike Phipps
Among the migrants making their way in fragile dinghies across the Channel are a considerable number fleeing the devastation in Yemen, a humanitarian catastrophe caused by a war in which Britain has direct involvement.
Yemen is the centre of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Almost 50% of children suffer from chronic malnutrition and 9.5 million are unable to access safe water, sanitation or hygiene. The conflict has cost an estimated 100,000 lives, with 80% of Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance.
This is not some unforeseen natural disaster, but the result of a conflict in which the west has played an egregious role. As reported on Labour Hub last month, the UK government recently resumed arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which had been frozen following a judicial review mounted by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. The government did so, after concluding that Saudi Arabia was not regularly deliberately breaching international law in bombing Yemen.
UK arms sales to the Saudi regime have risen fivefold since 2016. They include cluster bombs that have been dropped over Yemen – despite Britain being among the 100 countries to have prohibited their use – but not their sale to clients abroad.
Within days of the decision to resume sales, civilians in Yemen were hit in a Saudi air strike. And in August nine children were killed in another Saudi strike – the fourth in two months to cause multiple civilian casualties. So much for the British government’s assessment that Saudi Arabia is not engaged in the regular bombing of civilians.
Public outcry against the west’s arming of a ruthless dictatorship which is pounding one of the poorest countries in the region is widespread – but ignored by governments. The US Congress voted to block the sale of billions of dollars in weapons and maintenance to Saudi Arabia and its allies. But President Trump vetoed the measure in 2019.
Last week a US government watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, said the Department of State did not fully evaluate the risk of civilian casualties in Yemen when it pushed through a huge precision-guided munitions sale to Saudi Arabia in 2019. The report follows President Trump’s abrupt dismissal in May of the then Inspector General, Steve Linick, who was originally conducting the investigation.
Canada’s parliament declared a moratorium on weapon sales to the Saudis. But the Canadian government resumed sales, saying the moratorium only applied to new contracts, not existing ones. And French human rights advocates urged their government to cut weapon sales to the Saudi-led coalition, but 2019 figures show the French government sold 1.4 billion euros worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
As American peace activist Kathy Kelly pointed out recently, “Even foreign aid can become punitive.” Earlier this year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a US federal agency, decided to suspend most aid for Yemenis living in areas controlled by Houthi rebels, whom the Saudi-led coalition is targeting.
Oxfam America’s Scott Paul attacked this callous decision. “In future years,” he wrote, “scholars will study USAID’s suspension as a paradigmatic example of a donor’s exploitation and misuse of humanitarian principles.”
A standard defence by western government s of their immoral policy of arms sales is that it’s good for employment and has the support of workers whose jobs depend on the arms trade. Yet in Canada, Spain, France and Italy, workers opposed to the war have refused to load weapons onto ships sailing to Saudi Arabia – exemplary action worthy of the admiration of all advocates of peace.
Britain plays a particularly pernicious role in the throttling of Yemen. Part of the country’s intense suffering is the result of a Saudi blockade that is preventing ships from unloading in Hodeida port their essential supplies of gasoline, diesel, food and medical supplies. The British Navy gave the Saudi Navy training in tactics that enable it to impose this devastating Yemen blockade. Amnesty International said the new information was “deeply concerning.”
Likewise, hundreds of Saudi military personnel received training at Royal Air Force) bases in the UK in 2019. And MI5 is training spies from Saudi Arabia and a host of other repressive regimes in the region.
As Jeremy Corbyn reminded a recent online Stop the war Coalition meeting, 80% of people in Yemen need humanitarian assistance and Covid-19 has only made the situation worse. The devastation has left the country ill-prepared for emergencies. Last week, flash floods killed at least 172 people and destroyed homes and UNESCO-listed world heritage sites across the country, including many in the Old City of Sanaa. The impact of such emergencies is magnified in a country already reeling from war, food shortages and disease.
“But at the root of the crisis,” Jeremy Corbyn said, “is a war which is being facilitated and supported by the Conservative government through the sale of billions of pounds worth of weapons.
“When I became Labour leader in 2015, I proposed a government whose watchword would be human rights and prioritising the lives of the poorest people across the globe, that included ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia. I was proud that that was part of our manifesto in both general elections I led the party into because we cannot pretend to be in favour of human rights, peace and justice around the world if at the same time we are providing the wherewithal for Saudi Arabia and other nations to wage war on the people of Yemen. So we must demand an end to those arms supplies immediately.”
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