The last couple of weekends have been good for burying bad news. On July 15, Murtaza Hussain revealed the release of previously suppressed documents contained within a 2002 congressional report that emphasized possible links between high-ranking members of the Saudi royal family and the 9/11 hijackers. This weekend, the attempt to bury more bad news also involves Saudi Arabia. On this occasion the ties relate to the country’s human rights abuses in Yemen with the help of a complicit UK government which stands accused of repeatedly misleading parliament – news that was released in the final hours of the last day of the parliamentary term.
The UK government’s line has been to assure parliament and the British people that assessments have been undertaken, the stated intentions of which are to show that Saudi Arabia was not abusing human rights in Yemen. The Foreign Office (FO) have retracted a series of statements on the crisis in the country describing them as ‘an error’, adding that no such assessments of human rights had ever been carried out. With talks between Yemen’s warring factions still deadlocked, Saudi Arabia has been accused of breaking International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in its war against Iranian-backed forces. But in their fight they are using £2.8 billions-worth of British aircraft munitions.
Last Thursday (July 21), the government admitted misleading parliament on six different occasions telling MPs they had assessed Saudi conduct when they hadn’t, insisting that the Saudis weren’t breaking IHL. Astoundingly, the UK government which has recently sold just under £3 billion worth of weapons to the Saudi’s, is not assessing whether these weapons are being used in breach of IHL. There is very little that the Tory government, and in particular Philip Hammond, the former Foreign Secretary, is prepared to say or do that will come as a shock to this writer.
Having previously lied in an attempt to stitch-up Julian Assange in order to please his counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic, Hammond went a stage further with his piece of mandarin-speak intended to cover-up his misleading of parliament as a justification to sell weapons that are being used to kill innocent men, women and children in Yemen. The ability to knowingly lie by describing a UN body of lawyers as ‘lay people’ as well as signing off weapons of death to one of the most brutal regimes on earth without them having been independently assessed beforehand, is indicative of just how detached people like Hammond are from the plight of their fellow human beings.
With their statement:“We have NOT assessed that there has not been a breach of International Humanitarian Law by the coalition”, the government, in plain English, are simply saying that on no fewer than six occasions they misled parliament telling MPs that the Saudis were not breaching International Humanitarian Law in Yemen when, as I will show below, they must have known they were. Late on Friday (June 22), former Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, MP wrote to then Foreign Secretary, Hammond (now Chancellor):
“I urge Boris Johnson, as the new Foreign Secretary, to ensure that the Government does what you originally said it was doing and immediately assess whether IHL has been breached. A continued failure to undertake such an assessment would be an abdication of responsibility and will serve to further undermine Britain’s standing in the world.”
These jaw-dropping revelations which represent complete u-turns on previous answers that were given, are not just about the correction of six parliamentary answers, but touch on people’s lives in Yemen and the thousands of civilians who have lost their lives in a conflict in which the UK government is deeply complicit.
The British government’s role in the conflict initially only came to light following a Freedom of Information request that revealed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ (MOU) between the then Home Secretary Theresa May and her Saudi counterpart Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef which was signed secretly during the former’s visit to the Kingdom in 2014. The purpose of the MOU is to ensure that, among other secret deals, the precise details of the arms sales between the two countries is kept under wraps.
Britain’s role on the ground in Yemen began in September last year following the bombing by Saudi Arabia of a ceramics factory in Sana’a close to the Yemeni capital which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirmed was a civilian target. Fragments of a British made missile that had been built by Marconi in the 1990s had been recovered from the scene. With the British providing technical and other support staff to the Saudi led coalition, and UK export licenses to Saudi Arabia said to be worth more than £1.7 bn up to the first six months of 2015, the UK government’s role in the conflict appears to be to augment the support the U.S is giving to the Saudi-led coalition.
The United States, alongside the UK, has bolstered the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen through arms sales and direct military support. For example, in December, 2015, the State Department approved a billion-dollar deal to restock Saudi Arabia’s air force arsenal. The sale included thousands of air-to-ground munitions and “general purpose” bombs of the kind that, in October of that year, the Saudi’s used to target an MSF hospital.
On the 15 December, 2015, 19 civilians were killed by a Saudi-led coalition raid in Sana’a. According to analysis by eminent international law experts commissioned by Amnesty International UK and Saferworld, by continuing to trade with Saudi Arabia in arms in the context of its military intervention and bombing campaign in Yemen, the British government is breaking national, EU and international law.
The lawyers, Professor Philippe Sands QC, Professor Andrew Clapham and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh of Matrix Chambers, conclude in their comprehensive legal opinion that, on the basis of the information available, the UK Government is acting in breach of its obligations arising under the Arms Trade Treaty, the EU Common Position on Arms Exports and the UK’s Consolidated Criteria on arms exports by continuing to authorise transfers of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia within the scope of those instruments, capable of being used in Yemen.
They conclude that:
“Any authorisation by the UK of the transfer of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia… in circumstances where such weapons are capable of being used in the conflict in Yemen, including to support its blockade of Yemeni territory, and in circumstances where their end-use is not restricted, would constitute a breach by the UK of its obligations under domestic, European and international law….The UK should halt with immediate effect all authorisations and transfers of relevant weapons pending an inquiry” (emphasis added).
According to Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK:
“This legal opinion confirms our long-held view that the continued sale of arms from the UK to Saudi Arabia is illegal, immoral and indefensible. Thousands of civilians have been killed in Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes, and there’s a real risk that misery was ‘made in Britain’.”
Iona Craig, who recently won the 2016 Orwell Prize for Journalism, has investigated numerous Saudi-led airstrike sites in Yemen in which a total of around 150 civilians have been killed. In an interview on Channel 4 News last December, Craig asserted that during these strikes, which she said are a regular occurrence, the Saudi’s targeted public buses and a farmers market.
Remnants from a bomb that Craig pulled from a civilian home that killed an eighteen month old baby as well as a 4 year old and their uncle, were American made. Although Craig stated that she had not personally uncovered evidence of British made weapons, Amnesty International is nevertheless unequivocal in its damning assessment of the illegality of Britain’s role.
The fact that, as Craig stated, there are twice as many British made aircraft in the Saudi Royal air force then there are in the British Royal air force, and that the British train the Saudi air force as well as supplying it with its weapons, is by itself, tantamount to Britain being complicit in the deaths of innocent Yemeni civilians.
Craig emphasized that she has seen evidence which suggests civilian casualties in Yemen are the result of deliberate targeting rather than “collateral damage”. Among the numerous cases the journalist has examined there have been no Houthi positions or military targets in the vicinity – a contention which she claims is supported by the pro-coalition side. The consequences of this policy for the civilian population within the poorest country in the region, has been catastrophic with an estimated 2 million people having been displaced from a nation that’s on the brink of completely falling apart.
Over 3,000 civilians have been killed and injured in populated areas in Yemen by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. A UN study found that 60 per cent have died from Saudi-led aerial bombardments in the Houthi-controlled north of the country. Journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous who was based in this region commented:
“Everything has been hit, from homes to schools, restaurants, bridges, roads, a lot of civilian infrastructure. And with that, of course, comes a lot of the suffering.”
What is unfolding alongside the death and destruction in Yemen is a massive humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by the complicity of the U.S and UK, in which 21 million people – nearly double the number of people who need aid in Syria – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Consequently, levels of malnutrition have skyrocketed in the country with more than 60 per cent of Yemeni’s, according to the UN, close to starvation.
Questions about the precise role both the UK and Saudi Arabia are playing in Yemen, as well as the extent to which UK weapons are implicated in the deaths of civilians, will redouble after the government tried to bury some very bad news this weekend and got found out.
Originally published (cultureandpolitics.org)