End the Humanitarian Disaster in Yemen – Stop Arming the Saudi Dictatorship!

By Payam Solhtalab

This weekend – March 26th/27th – will mark the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the onslaught by a coalition of countries, headed by Saudi Arabia, against Yemen and its people. It’s a war that has exacted a particularly horrific toll on the country and its population, and which continues to do so unchecked as it is by the international community and powers that be. 

This bombardment of Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition has utterly devastated critical infrastructure across the country – leaving it in ruins and on the brink of a catastrophe of epic proportions. Hospitals, clinics, vaccination centres, schools and civic hubs have all been amongst the targets of this inhumane and unrestrained seven-year-long atrocity.

The blockade imposed by the coalition of aggressors has resulted in increasingly widespread starvation and the choking-off from Yemen of essential medical supplies and vital humanitarian aid. The war has already led to tens of thousands of deaths – including of at least 10,000 children, according to a statement by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres – and has pitched Yemen towards a state of “permanent humanitarian crisis”.

The assault upon Yemen by the military forces of several Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, along with those of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), began in March 2015 in a vain attempt to reverse the gains made inside the country by Houthi rebels as well as reinstate the overthrown Saudi-puppet autocrat, the unelected and unpopular former president Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, to power. 

The United Kingdom, the United States and several European Union nations are of course directly complicit in the ongoing war in Yemen and have its blood on their hands. Despite the devastating toll of the conflict the past seven years, the British government continues to provide intelligence and logistics to the Saudi-led effort – with over half of the military aircraft used by Saudi Arabia in the assault being supplied by Britain alone – and is unswerving in its support for Riyadh’s ultimate objectives. 

It is beyond doubt that the British government’s sickening supply of military aircraft, accompanied by state-of-the-art armaments and munitions, has directly contributed to the vast number of civilians killed – as well as the maiming of countless more who have survived the relentless bombardment. With its medical infrastructure in a state of near complete collapse, Yemen has been described by the UN as posing the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with Guterres stating that it is in “imminent danger of [becoming] the worst famine the world has seen for decades”.

Across Yemen, an estimated 2.2 million children are acutely malnourished, as are 1.3 million pregnant and breastfeeding women. On current projections, 161,000 Yemeni people will be facing starvation in the second half of 2022, five times higher times than the current figure, underlining a disastrous famine in the making.

A new UN report has projected that the death toll from Yemen’s war will have reached 377,000 by the end of 2021.

The UK Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) point out that: “The most recent government statistics show that the UK has licensed at least £6.5 billion worth of arms to the Saudi-led Coalition since the start of its ongoing bombing campaign in Yemen. The figure covers the period from March 26 2015, when the bombing began, until March 26 2020.”

In June 2019, in response to a case brought by CAAT, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government acted unlawfully when it licensed the sale of UK-made arms to Saudi-led forces for use in Yemen without making an assessment as to whether past incidents amounted to breaches of international humanitarian law.

However, in July 2020, the government announced that it was resuming the arms sales. Then-Secretary of State for International Trade, now Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, in a written statement to Parliament, claimed that the government had completed the review ordered by the Court of Appeal, and had determined that any violations of international law were “isolated incidents”. 

Across the Atlantic, many hoped that, given his campaign promises, US President Joe Biden would move to unilaterally end western support for the war in Yemen upon assuming office. In February 2021, Biden expanded on this aspect of his foreign policy positions with two very telling statements.

The first was: “We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war on Yemen.” This stress on “offensive” operations is particularly material given that the US considers the Saudi-led war effort to be primarily defensive, underlined by Biden’s subsequent promise of support for Saudi Arabia against “Iranian-backed forces” in Yemen – as well as statements by his national security advisers that operations in the country pursuant to the wider ‘War on Terror’ would continue.

His second statement was a promise to end all “relevant sales” of arms to Saudi Arabia, “relevant” referring to arms used in offensive operations and thus rendered meaningless given the aforementioned view of the conflict in the eyes of the US.

In January 2022, a meeting between the US, UK, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE reaffirmed this same position of support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while condemning retaliatory attacks by the Houthis.

But why did Biden feel the need to make a nod policy-wise towards the notion of peace in Yemen at all? This is undoubtedly due to the growing popular disgust at the war, manifested in direct action by peace activists and trade unions in Britain, the US, and several western countries.

The actions of CAAT in pursuing judicial review against the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia also clearly served to rattle the British military-industrial complex. It is clear that the anti-war movement in Britain is able to force the government into a retreat as far as the war in Yemen is concerned.

We have seen how vague assertions from the British government as to its policy regarding Yemen amount to nothing. Any government position short of one for bringing to an end the siege and onslaught against the people of Yemen simply serves as a smokescreen around its continuing complicity in this outrage.

We in the peace movement must concertedly push for the independence and sovereignty of Yemen to be fully respected and guaranteed, as well as its entailing right to defend itself from external attack. Our campaign must be for an immediate cessation of all military attacks on Yemen, as well as all interference in its internal sovereign affairs, by any foreign power – be it Arab, Iranian, or otherwise – and for any such transgression to be seen as the violation of international law it is.

Liberation has argued that while peace and reconciliation based upon a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement is vital in Ukraine, it is no less vital in long-suffering Yemen seven years after the war there began. While the international community opts to place all of its focus upon one arena of conflict, the world should not be allowed to forget that there are others at least equally deserving of attention and proper redress – and in which our governments are likewise deeply complicit.

Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) and the Stop the War Coalition will be holding a joint webinar to mark the seventh anniversary of the start of the disastrous war in Yemen, and calling for its immediate cessation, on Saturday March 26th at 17:00 GMT. For more information on this webinar and how to register, see here.

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Payam Solhtalab is a peace activist working with Liberation