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Passing the Buck on Yemen

After years of British government complicity in Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen, the court of appeal has suspended arms sales. But the fight for justice is far from over.

Yemen has entered its fifth year under the unspeakable violence of an air campaign made possible by British ministers who—year in, year out—have signed off export licences for the munitions and aircraft parts needed for Saudi Arabia to sustain its bombing.

But, on 20 June, those fighting for justice secured a significant victory. The court of appeal ruled that ministers have been approving licences which violate a provision in domestic and EU law prohibiting the export of weapons that might be used to recklessly or deliberately target civilians.

The signs have been there for years. In 2016, the UN found that the air war had “targeted civilians . . . in a widespread and systematic manner.” Since then, the rate of civilian bombings has accelerated, and between 2017 and 2018 it nearly doubled.

Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen is nothing short of state terrorism. In an unsuccessful effort to change the shifting political situation in the north of the country, Riyadh has targeted the entire population, hitting schools, hospitals, weddings, and funerals.

Nearly 100,000 Yemenis have been killed in the air war, which has displaced millions and contributed to mass starvation in the countryside. An estimated 85,000 children under 5 have died from malnutrition during the war, roughly the same number as live in Birmingham.

The entire notion of the government licencing arms to Saudi Arabia is a charade. Under a 1985 deal with Saudi Arabia that has generated £60 billion to date, the government itself contracts out the manufacture of the very bombs and planes whose export it is meant be regulating with licences.

From court documents we know that the head of the licensing unit told ministers that he was “minded to refuse the Saudi licenses” but somewhere along the line this recommendation was dropped before final sign-off. The new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, along with Liam Fox and Sajid Javid have all personally and illegally approved these licences to keep Riyadh’s doomed air war going.

For over four years the body tasked with scrutinising arms sales, the Committee on Arms Export Controls, has refused to do its job. Its current chair, Labour MP Graham Jones, is a steadfast enabler of this illegality because of his own support for the Saudi war in Yemen. As chair of the committee Jones went as far as to stop the UK’s own human rights expert on Yemen giving evidence.

With politicians like these, it has taken an incredible amount of work to bring about change. Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and other NGOs worked diligently to make this judicial review happen. And it hasn’t just been NGOs , the labour movement has stepped up as well. In Italy, dockworkers recently refused to load a Saudi cargo ship carrying weapons to Yemen, an echo of the Scottish Rolls Royce workers who refused to repair aircraft engines being used by Pinochet’s Chilean military.

Despite what the government will have us believe, the arms trade as it is currently configured does not promote global security or prosperity. The jobs of British defence workers are, in fact, under threat from a government strategy that contracts out domestic procurement while contracting in the rearmament of whatever needless war it is backing. In the 1980s, it was Saddam Hussain. Today, it’s Mohammed Bin Salman.

Britain needs a public inquiry into arms exports, along the lines of the Scott Inquiry in the 1990s, when the government was found to be arming Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. That war resulted in a million deaths; Yemen is heading the same way.

For the moment, the government has agreed not to grant any new licences to Saudi Arabia or its coalition partners. But it will appeal the judgement. The fight is far from over for the victims of this conflict. It’s worth remembering what our government has forced them to endure.

Mohammed Busaibis lost 26 members of his own family when his son’s wedding was bombed on 28 September 2015, killing 131 people. He only realised that he had lost his mother and his sister because he recognised their disembodied legs in the surrounding trees.

Those responsible include Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, and Sajid Javid. But they also include the other ministers, officials, and BAE executives who simply shut their eyes when confronted with the injustice to which they were complicit. One day, they must face justice of their own.