The UK is at war in Yemen.
The war has not been declared, nor are British soldiers returning in body bags. But the UK’s armed forces are deeply involved in supporting Saudi forces who are bombing Yemen. Boris Johnson’s government has resumed arms sales to the Saudi regime, fuelling a war that has produced, according to the United Nations, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The Observer recently reported on a little-known database at the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), which logs alleged breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen. Around 500 incidents are on the database – and if that sounds horrific, you should know it is a vast underestimate. Evidence gathered by the Yemen Data Project and Airwars suggests that the real figure is in the thousands.
You might be wondering why an obscure MoD database matters so much. The answer is that it may play a major part in a court case which could have a big effect on Yemen.
In 2019, the Court of Appeal ruled that UK ministers had not followed the law when issuing export licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The court declared that ministers had failed in their legal duty to assess the possibility of breaches of international humanitarian law before issuing the licences. The ruling was a victory for grassroots activism: the case had been brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).
But in July 2020, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss announced that arms sales to Saudi Arabia would resume. She insisted that the government was now carrying out sufficient assessments when issuing licences; Saudi breaches of international law were declared to be ‘isolated incidents’.
This brings us back to the MoD’s dodgy database. CAAT has launched a fresh legal action, insisting that ministers are still behaving illegally. If the case rests on whether Saudi atrocities are ‘isolated incidents’, then Liz Truss and her friends in the arms industry have a significant interest in under-counting them. The fact that 500 is considered a low number gives a glimpse of the unimaginable horror of the Yemeni war.
Saudi-led forces have conducted over 20,000 air strikes in Yemen since 2015. The Yemen Data Project puts civilian casualties at over 18,000 at a conservative estimate; millions more face hunger, homelessness, and disease. Amnesty International reports that Saudi bombings of schools, hospitals, and markets are not accidental – civilians are targeted.
According to the Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights (in Yemen), both sides have ‘demonstrated a clear disregard for civilians’ – but it’s not necessary to take sides in the war to object to the role of British ministers and arms dealers in fuelling the horror. The official value of British arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition since the war began in 2015 is £6.3bn – more than six times the amount that the UK has given to Yemen in aid. The United Nations expert group on Yemen has criticised the UK and other countries for supporting ‘parties to the conflict including through arms transfers, thereby helping to perpetuate the conflict’.
Information about UK-Saudi military links is not easy to obtain: it comes in dribs and drabs. Defence minister James Heappey admits that 180 Saudi forces personnel received training at RAF Cosford in 2019 alone. A year earlier, the government stated that RAF instructors are placed on secondment to BAE to provide training on Tornado jets to Saudi aircrew. Twenty-five British civilian airports have been used for training Saudi pilots. Perhaps most shockingly, in February 2020, the Royal Artillery was deployed to guard Saudi oil-fields. This was kept secret from Parliament and the public until November.
British military support for Saudi forces is not a departure from the norm. It’s just a particularly nasty example. The UK has military bases in at least 42 countries, and in 2018-20, UK armed forces provided military training to 18 of the 30 states in which the Foreign Office says it is most ‘concerned about human rights’. Last month, the International Criminal Court reported that there is a ‘reasonable basis to believe’ that British troops committed war crimes in Iraq.
We are told that Britain’s armed forces exist to defend us and protect democracy. However well-intentioned individuals in the forces may be, this naïve picture does not fit reality. When Covid hit the UK, we were all grateful to everyone who helped, including military personnel. But while some UK troops were building hospitals in Britain, others were training Saudi forces bombing hospitals in Yemen. The only thing that the military-industrial complex really protects is the profits of arms dealers.
Thankfully, there are signs of hope.
British soldier Ahmed Al-Batati was recently thrown out of the army for protesting against the war in Yemen, and he insists that many other soldiers agree with him. Last year, the RAF backed down over plans for a new training site in northwest Wales; local people, supported by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and Cymdeithas y Cymod, had campaigned against it, with objections including the likelihood that Saudi forces would be trained there. In November, there was embarrassment for organisers of an online careers event sponsored by BAE Systems when members of the PPU Youth Network turned up and asked awkward questions about Yemen and militarism.
It’s encouraging to see the Labour Party under Keir Starmer continue to oppose arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But the arms industry and the armed forces cannot easily be separated, and politicians of nearly all stripes are frightened of being seen as unsupportive of the troops.
Last year, Tory MPs voted against extending free school meals in England into the holidays. A few weeks later, the Prime Minister announced the biggest increase in military spending for three decades. The £16bn involved could have paid for the free school meals scheme for 53 years. Perhaps the saddest part of this development was watching Labour shadow ministers falling over each other in their rush to agree with Boris Johnson’s increase in military funding.
If Labour or other opposition parties are to stand any chance of changing British foreign and ‘defence’ policy, they need to overcome the fear of being attacked by the likes of the Sun for being insufficiently pro-military. Most of the public are quite capable of understanding that criticism of the military as an institution is not an attack on military personnel as individuals.
The war in Yemen makes this even more urgent. Yahya Assiri, a Saudi human rights activist who is a former officer in the Saudi air force, says: ‘Saudi Arabia couldn’t continue its violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Yemen without the support of its western allies.’ The UK’s ministers, generals and arms dealers will do nothing to change that situation if there is no pressure from below. It is up to us to act.