UK arms sales and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Robert Wilcox

The civil war in Yemen has led to the world’s “largest humanitarian crisis”, according to the United Nations. Despite this sobering statement, western media coverage of the civil war, and the resulting humanitarian crisis, has been fleeting. The figures, however, warrant being emblazoned on every newspaper’s front page. Civilian casualties are in excess of 18,000. Around four million people have been forced to leave their homes. Approximately 24 million people (80% of the population) are in need of humanitarian assistance, of whom approximately 12 million are children. Many are unaware of the UK’s role in this crisis. But the time to confront the unpalatable truth that UK arms sales have helped to make this all possible is long overdue. 

Hostilities in Yemen broke out in 2014, when the Houthi rebel movement, comprised largely of Shia Muslims, succeeded in overthrowing President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government. Saudi Arabia, where Sunni Muslims constitute the vast majority of the population, was concerned that this would enable Iran, its regional rival and a country predominantly populated by Shia Muslims, to establish a presence in Yemen. In 2015, it formed a coalition with other Sunni-majority states, ostensibly to reinstate the government. This Saudi-led coalition has since launched over 21,000 air strikes against Yemen and imposed a blockade on the country, resulting in a huge shortage of food, water and medical supplies. 

From the very beginning, the Saudi-led coalition has received the backing of the UK. This went far beyond an endorsement of the coalition’s objectives; the UK granted export licences for the sale of arms to the coalition’s members, provided them with military personnel and supplied them with the aircraft to be used in bombing campaigns. It is difficult to ascertain the true value of arms sales under UK export licences since 2015; while official figures show that £6.4 billion worth of arms have been sold to the coalition, this does not account for arms sold under “open licences”. This type of licence does not require the cost to be logged. The actual cost of arms sales could, therefore, be much greater and, indeed, it would certainly appear to be so given that BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms manufacturer, has sold £15 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015. 

The Saudi-led coalition has committed flagrant breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL), the body of law which, amongst other aims, seeks to safeguard non-combatants in an armed conflict. A 2016 UN Panel Report found that “the coalition had conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects … including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes”. This could not have been made possible without UK military assistance. According to a BAE Systems employee, speaking to Channel 4’s Dispatches, “[i]f we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky”. 

In the case of R (on the application of Campaign Against the Arms Trade) v Secretary of State for International Trade [2019] EWCA Civ 1020, the Court of Appeal declared that the UK government’s grant of export licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia was “irrational and therefore unlawful”. This ruling was underpinned by the finding 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 the licences should be granted. One would think this is a particularly important piece of information to take into account. The fact that the UK government did not is, frankly, nothing short of disgraceful and demonstrates outright contempt for human suffering. Apparently, it is the considered view of the UK government that we should not concern ourselves with the deliberate targeting of civilians, or civilian infrastructure, when we are exporting weaponry to other states. 

Rather than accept the Court of Appeal’s ruling, however, the UK government sought, and was granted, permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. It also requested that judgment be stayed so that it could continue to sell arms in the meantime. This utterly shameless move beggars belief. The stay on the judgment was not granted, but the case is shortly due to be heard by the Supreme Court. It would be complacent to think that the Supreme Court will make the same ruling. Not because there is any doubt surrounding the evidence but because of the limited circumstances in which the courts can intervene in UK foreign policy. The ground for judicial review that is being advanced is rationality; i.e. no rational decision-maker would have made this decision without obtaining and considering certain information. This is not a straightforward question because, although it is one in which morality can factor, courts are constitutionally required to give substantial deference to the UK government when it comes to matters of domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, it is possible, under the law, for a minister to continue to sell arms to the Saudi-led coalition so long as they can merely show that they did consider past violations of IHL. Nothing we have seen from the UK government so far suggests that doing so would cause them to rethink its decision to grant export licences for arms sales. 

The UK has blood on its hands. Please write to your MP now, asking them to: (1) oppose the waste of taxpayer’s money on a morally abhorrent legal challenge; and (2) condemn a policy which has helped to bring about the deaths of thousands of civilians, widespread starvation and the worst cholera epidemic in modern history.

Why saying ‘All Lives Matter’ denies the Black Lives Matter message

Tomos Owen

Following the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been reignited, arguably reaching a greater number of people worldwide than when the movement was first initiated. It has led countries across the world to reflect on their own issues of systemic racism, police brutality, and in the case of the UK, their colonial past. What has been particularly harrowing is the response of many people in power that have dismissed the protests as having nothing to do with racism in the UK or denying altogether that the UK is a racist country. The rhetoric that has been associated with these sentiments is nothing less than dangerous.

‘All Lives Matter’, whether said naively or with a more sinister intention, consistently causes harm to the BLM movement and has rightly been met with cynicism. I recently witnessed this myself when attending a socially-distanced Black Lives Matter protest in Cardiff. Standing on the outskirts, it was particularly hard to distinguish every word of the numerous speakers, but they were invariably met with admiration and applause. However, one speaker, who had up to that point been met with applause, ended his speech by shouting ‘All Lives Matter’. I can only assume that this was said naively, but it attracted a unanimous groan followed by chants of, ‘off, off, off!’ Even if he had wanted to take back his words, he wasn’t going to be given a chance.

The question is, why does ‘All Lives Matter’ garner such a negative response? The phrase suggests that all lives matter equally, which at face value seems sincere, but when you actually consider the phrase it is both careless and false. It is beyond doubt that all lives should matter equally, but to suggest all lives do matter equally is frankly naive. When looking at the statistics for the UK on ethnicity across education, employment, crime, living standards and healthcare, this is laid bare. These are just a few from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 2018 Race Report Statistics:

  • 6% of Black school leavers went to Russell Group universities in comparison to 11% of White school leavers;
  • Black people who leave school with A-Levels get paid 14.3% less than White people in the same situation;
  • 26.8% of Black people live in overcrowded accommodation in comparison to 8.3% of White people;
  • The mortality rate for Black African women in the UK was four times higher than White women; and,
  • Black African women were seven times more likely to be detained than White British women.

Unfortunately, these statistics go on and on and point clearly towards why the Black Lives Matter protests are warranted. They also highlight that all lives do not matter equally and that there are stark differences in the way people are treated in the UK based on ethnicity, invariably seeing White people fare better. The response of ‘All Lives Matter’ therefore works to deny the issues facing Black communities and attempts to devalue the message of BLM. This is best summed up using the burning house analogy which surfaced when the BLM movement began and was turned into a comic strip by Kris Straub. Imagine that there is a house on fire in my street and people have gathered to help put it out. A passerby asks what everyone is looking at to which I explain that there is a house on fire. The passerby responds by asking, “What about my house? Doesn’t it matter?”. I ask whether their house is on fire when they respond, “No. But, it still matters”. I explain that no one said that their house didn’t matter, but this one is on fire and we need to put it out. Their response? “All houses matter!”. 

The analogy is outlandish, but it does sum up the issue with the ‘All Lives Matter’ rhetoric perfectly. The BLM movement is not out to suggest that certain people’s lives do not matter; they are simply bringing attention to racial injustices in our society and how we can seek to address them. The BLM movement is about equality and hopefully in future we can say that all lives matter equally. Equality is fundamental to our society and no one should be automatically disadvantaged due to the colour of their skin. We must all get behind this movement and push for change. On an equal footing we can then collectively address other problems that affect everyone. 

As I have said, I do believe that in most cases ‘All Lives Matter’ is used naively and is not intended to cause harm. I admit that even having studied human rights, I was shocked by the level of inequality that still exists in the UK. However, by educating ourselves on the issues and assessing the true meaning of our words we can better assist the BLM movement towards equality. This understanding will allow us to focus solely on the mission to eradicate racism in the UK and avoid further distractions. Racism is the fire burning in our society and we all must work to put it out. 

Why UK schools should be teaching Black history and British colonialism

Robert Wilcox

The video footage of the killing of George Floyd was horrific to witness. The image of a white police officer placing his knee on the neck of a black man in order to pin him to the ground was itself symbolic of centuries of oppression, and acted as the catalyst for anti-racism protests across the globe on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Police officers resorting to disproportionate violence to detain black suspects with lethal consequences is an all-too-frequent occurrence, but it is just one symptom of the global pandemic that is racism. What became clear in the aftermath of Floyd’s death was just how much we still have to learn when it comes to racism in modern society. Most children are brought up thinking that racism simply means using certain words to describe a black person. Therefore, they fail to appreciate the scale of the injustice done to black people. This is unsurprising given that Black history is largely absent from the curriculum.

Black history should be taught in schools. Why? Because, quite simply, black history is our history. It is the history of how one group of human beings has systematically oppressed another group of human beings simply because of the colour of their skin. This history has as much to tell us about white people as it does about black people. It explains certain facets of our current, shared reality – a reality in which black people are not only faced with racial abuse but also lower life expectancy, lower incomes, worse health, educational inequalities and longer sentences for committing the same crime as a white person. It is a history which we ignore to our shame.

This disregard for history extends to the history of our own country. There is this notion that the UK is a country with no equal, that the “great” in Great Britain has been rightfully earned and that our country and its people are, and always have been, somehow inherently superior to other nations and their peoples. This is an extremely dangerous fallacy and one which is frequently invoked by demagogues to stoke, and appeal to, nationalistic tendencies. When viewing the world through this lens, it is little wonder that there are people in the UK who think only in terms of “them” and “us”. It is not difficult to see the temptation; simply by possessing a British passport, they are, by association, better than those who don’t possess one. Denying them the comfort of that myth means that they have to face their own insecurities about their place in the world and, perhaps more significantly to them, in British society. Our curriculum fails to provide the antidote to the ignorance surrounding our own history. The upshot is that we are left with the idea that the UK is the sole occupant of the world’s moral high ground.

The truth, however, is very different. The UK has many dark chapters in its history. For around 250 years, it played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade and, even after the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807, it continued to import sugar from plantations which made use of slave labour. Approximately one million people died in the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s; it is still fiercely debated whether sheer incompetence or deliberate policy on the part of the British government contributed to the deaths of one-eighth of the Irish population. During the Second Boer War, fought between Britain and the Boer Republics from 1899 to 1902, the British forcibly detained civilians in concentration camps. Such were the conditions in these camps that over 26,000 Boers died, the vast majority being women and children. Separate camps were set up for black Africans. It is estimated, according to official figures, that around 15,000 died but questions over the completeness of British records mean that the actual death toll is likely to have been much higher. There were no less than 12 famines during the British Occupation of India. When, in 1919, civilians gathered to peacefully protest British colonial rule, they were sealed within the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh and gunned down by the British Indian Army; as many as 1,000 were killed and many more were injured. During the Mau Mau Uprising, which took place between 1952 and 1960, the British placed tens of thousands of Kenyans in concentration camps in which they were routinely subjected to torture and the most horrific forms of sexual assault.

The fact is that British colonialism has a long and bloody history. Unfortunately, the direction that public discourse has taken means that one feels bound to point out that acknowledging this fact does not make one a traitor to their country. Nor does it somehow involve dismissing the significant contributions that the UK has made to defending human rights, such as standing against the evil of Nazism and the role the UK played in the creation of the European Convention on Human Rights. What is being advocated here is a curriculum which encourages balanced and critical reflection on our history, and which does not shirk from posing difficult questions to students about the reality in which we find ourselves.

Without understanding the injustices of our past, we cannot hope to confront the injustices of our present. Please write to your MP and/or sign a petition, advocating that Black history and British colonialism be made compulsory parts of the national curriculum.

Unaccompanied child refugees and the decline in opportunities to access the UK

Tomos Owen

It is difficult to truly understand the plight of unaccompanied child refugees. If you are like me it is likely that you did not begin to have a semblance of independence from your parents until your mid-teens and that can be considered commonplace in many Western nations. It does, however, form a disconnect from the truth that others have a far more difficult upbringing. 

The impact of war leads to situations where the lives of innocent children can be changed beyond repair within a matter of hours. In places like Syria, children can leave for school in the morning and return later to find their neighbourhood reduced to rubble. In scenes of chaos, where they may have no idea if their own family has survived, these children can easily be sucked into a procession of people fleeing the city as they fear more attacks. It is difficult to truly imagine the fear and confusion that a child would feel in this situation and in most cases this only marks the beginning of a harrowing ordeal in their search for safety. 

This situation is not uncommon and demonstrates just one of a number of circumstances where a child could become an unaccompanied refugee. The reality is that EU countries received over 17,000 applications from unaccompanied children seeking refuge in 2019 (Eurostat). This number is representative of possibly the most vulnerable group of people in the world and every one of those children deserves protection from this situation.  

The position of the UK

Over the past several years, the position of the UK in assisting unaccompanied child refugees has come under increased scrutiny. It could be hoped that with one of the largest economies in the world we would be in a position to take in and support a large number of these children, although the reality is that we appear to be becoming more resistant. 

The first indication of this resistance came in 2016 in the midst of the refugee crisis. Parliament were debating what became the Immigration Act 2016, during which opposition MPs and various stakeholders called for the government to include provisions for taking in around 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees. This position was also championed by Lord Alf Dubs, a Member of the House of Lords and himself a child refugee who travelled from Czechoslovakia to England in 1939. Given the scale of the crisis at the time, this would have been a timely intervention and removed many from the poor conditions in refugee camps around Europe. Lord Dubs introduced an amendment to the Bill which would have legislated for this number, however the government were openly opposed and rejected the amendment. 

A new Dubs Amendment was eventually introduced and accepted. Unfortunately, this only committed the government to protecting ‘a specified number’ of unaccompanied child refugees. Hopes that this number would be significant were quickly dashed when the government settled on the number 350, almost 10 times fewer than proposed by Lord Dubs. The Home Office later increased this number to 480, although admitted this was due to an administrative error rather than driven by a motivation to protect more children. It has now been confirmed that these places have been filled and that the scheme will be ending. There are also no plans to introduce a new scheme to take its place. It is increasingly difficult to understand the reasoning behind this position particularly as Safe Passage, a charity that assists refugees, has suggested that councils would provide 1,400 spaces if a new scheme was devised.

Nevertheless, the approach of the government has continued and Brexit has created even more uncertainty for those hoping the UK will assist unaccompanied child refugees. In the many years prior to Brexit, the UK was subject to numerous EU laws which sought to ensure that the rights of refugees, and particularly the most vulnerable refugees, were protected. Notably, the Dublin III Regulation aimed to identify which EU country should process an asylum application and ensure that a Member State will review the application of an unaccompanied child if a relative of theirs is resident in that state. The application of this Regulation, or the introduction of something similar, is now in doubt.

Earlier this year, Lord Dubs again attempted to address this issue, this time introducing an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This amendment sought to include a commitment that the government would seek an agreement with the EU to allow unaccompanied child refugees to come to the UK if they had a relative there. This would have simply ensured a continuation of the process the UK were already undertaking through the Dublin III Regulation. However, on this occasion, the government was resolute and voted decidedly against the amendment, perhaps callously citing that this was in the interest of bolstering their negotiating position moving forward. This should never have been seen as something to be negotiated and the UK now appears to be devoid of any obligations to protect unaccompanied child refugees. 

The question is, are we really going to say that we are happy with this? We only have to look back to our position in WWII to see that this is not right. During WWII, the UK provided refuge to between 70,000 and 80,000 Jewish refugees, but since then it seems our position has become more focused on restricting measures. We must revert back to viewing this as a moral issue of helping those in need rather than accepting refugee flows as inevitable and avoiding any responsibility for it. Lord Dubs is testament to the fact that by providing refuge to those in need we are not only helping them, but we are also exposing ourselves to people of different backgrounds and cultures who can help improve the UK. It is now imperative that the UK moves swiftly to ensure schemes protecting the most vulnerable of these people, unaccompanied child refugees, are restored or new measures are introduced to compensate. I fear that if this is not done we will look back in several years with considerable regret.

Call for an end to the UK’s indefinite detention of immigrants

Robert Wilcox

People fleeing war and persecution, torture survivors, and victims of rape and human trafficking, are just some of those being held in immigration detention centres across the UK for months and, in some cases, even years, without knowing when they will be released. 

The UK detains tens of thousands of people in immigration detention centres each year. The authority to detain a person for reasons of immigration control is found in sections 3 to 5, and schedules 2 and 3, of the Immigration Act 1971. A very small list of exceptions notwithstanding, there is currently no statutory time limit on the detention of immigrants in the UK; paragraph 55.1.3 of the Home Office’s Enforcement Instructions and Guidance merely states that detention should be for “the shortest period necessary”. Without a clearly defined time limit in place, individuals are being detained, even though they are not accused of committing a crime, for time periods which can outstrip the length of certain prison sentences. Some of those are individuals who have legally resided in the UK for many years. 

The right not to be arbitrarily detained by the state is fundamental, and enshrined in both Article 9 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is also found in Article 5(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The reasons underlying it are obvious; it cannot be right in a fair and civilised society to detain people for unspecified periods of time and simply for the sake of administrative expediency. This is especially so when one considers that the authority to detain a person is discretionary. 

The effects of indefinite detention on a person cannot be overstated. It can have serious consequences for a person’s physical and mental health. Between 2010 and 2017, there were 13 cases of suicide and nearly 2,000 incidents of other forms of self-harm reported at immigration detention centres. In the case of R (on the application of MD) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2014] EWHC 2249 (Admin), the High Court found that the mental health of a 24-year-old woman, who had no pre-existing mental health conditions, had deteriorated to such an extent, as a result of her detention, that her detention “amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of Article 3 of the ECHR”. She had come to the UK to join her husband under a refugee family reunion visa and had been detained for 17 months. It is clear that the system is not only failing already vulnerable people (or, perhaps more accurately, people who have been through terrible ordeals), but is itself responsible for the onset of mental disorders in those who are detained. Just being detained without knowing when you will be released is likely to do significant psychological harm.   

Independent research by Matrix Evidence has found that £75m is wasted every year because individuals, who ultimately are released into the community, are detained for unreasonably long periods. Then there is also the question of compensation for unlawful detention. Between 2015 and 2017, the Home Office was required to pay out £7.4m in compensation to people who had been unlawfully detained. These figures are, perhaps, less shocking in their demonstration of the extent to which tax-payers’ money is wasted than in their indication of the scale of the injustice caused by immigration policy in this country. Not only are people being arbitrarily detained for longer than necessary, but some people have been detained in immigration detention centres who should never have been there at all.

Apparently, this practice is justified on the basis of immigration control. But it fails even according to its own rationale. Over half of the people held in immigration detention centres are eventually released into the community. This means that they have a legal entitlement to reside in the UK but have, nevertheless, been held in detention without knowing when they would be released. It is nothing short of shameful that we are the only country in Europe that has failed to establish a time limit for detaining immigrants. 

This cruel practice has no place in a fair and civilised society. We must stop punishing immigrants simply for wanting to build a better life. MPs are expected to be given a vote on this issue in July. Please write to your MP now, urging them to oppose the indefinite detention of immigrants.