In a deeply disturbing move, the UK government announced yesterday that it would continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia despite its own findings that UK arms may have been used to commit violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) in Yemen.
In an earlier article (see here), I discussed the scale of the humanitarian crisis that is currently facing Yemen (the world’s largest according to the UN), and how the UK has not only aided and abetted Saudi Arabia in causing widespread destruction but has, in fact, enabled it through the sale of arms. Quite simply, without military assistance from the UK, the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen would not be possible.
The UK government’s decision comes on the back of a court-ordered review into the granting of military export licences to Saudi Arabia. Back in June 2019, the Court of Appeal found that the UK government had decided, or implemented a policy change to the effect, “that there would be no assessment of past violation of IHL” in determining whether export licences for the sale of arms should be granted. This rendered such grants “irrational and therefore unlawful”. The Court concluded that the grant of military export licences should be suspended, pending review. Following the ruling, and in response to an urgent question in the House of Commons, the UK government admitted that it had breached the Court’s suspension order no less than three times by granting further export licences.
Since then, the UK government has completed its review. According to a statement from the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, although the review had identified “credible incidents of concern” in relation to potential breaches of IHL, it was the view of the UK government that these were “isolated incidents”. It beggars belief how five years of air strikes, which have targeted refugee camps, weddings, funerals, schools, hospitals, markets and public transport, leading to the deaths of thousands of civilians, can be described as “isolated incidents”. The statement attempts to explain away these war crimes, by stating that “the incidents which have been assessed to be possible violations of IHL occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons”. What sort of reassurance is that? Who is to say that those circumstances and reasons, whatever they were, won’t arise again? And, in any event, it misses the point entirely. IHL exists precisely to preserve some degree of humanity when all else has descended into the hellish conditions of war. Except as provided in Article 5 to the Fourth Geneva Convention, the application of which would not stretch to the treatment of civilians, no state can suspend its obligations under IHL, whatever the circumstances and for whatever reasons.
Our government, it seems, is quite content for the UK to bloody its hands again. While 80% of Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance (half of whom are children), the best idea that our government can come up with is to sell more arms to belligerents. Please write to your MP now, imploring them to raise this issue in Parliament and demand a change in our foreign policy with respect to Yemen; innocent lives depend on it.