Wilma Smythe

History’s largest humanitarian crisis has been unfolding in Yemen since 2014. With one of the worst famines in 100 years and the largest cholera outbreak on record, Yemeni civilians are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Aid cuts have exacerbated famine and starvation and with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Yemen’s healthcare system has collapsed. The UN estimates that over four-fifths of the Yemeni population- over 22 million- are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. 

The Saudi-led coalition has engaged in a deadly war against Houthi rebels in a bid to restore the Hadi government. Since the launch of the aerial bombardment campaign in 2015, the Yemen Data Project estimates that over 17,500 Yemeni civilians have died. Women and children make up the majority of fatalities, as school busses, villages and hospitals have been the main areas of attack. As the bombing campaign continues, Human Rights Watch have reported over 36 violations of International Humanitarian Law by the Saudi-led Coalition.

Despite the ongoing humanitarian crisis, Saudi Arabia accounts for over 40% UK arms exports. Since 2015, the UK has licensed over £4.7 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and a further £860 million to Saudi coalition partners. Western governments have been the main suppliers of munitions to the Saudi-led coalition, despite growing accusations of complicity in war crimes. 

Arms for Lives?

There appears to be a direct link between arms sales and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. In 2018, Saudi forces pushed the country into full-blown famine as they attempted to reconquer Hodeidah from the Houthi movement, making 2018 the deadliest year of the war yet. Coincidentally, that same year was the ‘best ever year’ for UK arms exports, as the Department for International Trade reports profits of over £14bn pounds through the sale of Typhoon jets.

Despite this, arms sales have provided a veneer of legitimacy to the Saudi-led coalition. The UK continues to provide diplomat cover to Saudi Arabia, justifying the sale of arms on the basis that the UK operates the most robust arms export regimes in the world. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has argued that not only is this simply “morally bankrupt”, but it is also illegal. EU and national arms export licensing criteria state that if there is a ‘clear risk’ that a weapon may violate International Humanitarian Law it should not be licensed. The United Kingdom may be breaking its own laws and contributing to the largest humanitarian crisis in history, while making billions of pounds.

Yemeni Human Rights NGO Mwatana have called on the UK government to halt its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, detaching itself from the possible misuse of arms by the Saudi-led coalition and begin to work towards developing a diplomatic peace treaty to put an end to the disastrous conflict. Mwatana have also called for the establishment of an arms exports Select Committee to investigate violations of International Humanitarian Law by the Saudi-led coalition. However government reports continue to show that there has been no pattern in violations, as Trade secretary Liz Truss said that there is only evidence of “isolated incidents”.

This has allowed for the resumption of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt believes that by halting military exports to Saudi Arabia, the UK would ‘surrender’ its influence and make itself irrelevant to the events in Yemen. However, it’s possible that history’s largest humanitarian crisis could have been averted if Western arms companies had chosen not to deal arms with the Saudi government.

What can WE do?

We must educate ourselves about the situation in Yemen, encouraging others to be socially aware in order to challenge our governments to make better decisions. Taking action is as easy as simply sharing this article, or by joining your local Stop the War Coalition to take part in national protests. The only way to get our voices heard is to make some noise. Don’t stay silent, we owe it to the people in Yemen to speak up and create change.

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