THE GUARDIAN — The war in Yemen has been good for British arms manufacturers. In the first year of bombardment, the UK licensed £3.3bn of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade. Riyadh is carrying out extensive air strikes to drive back Houthi rebels as leader of the US- and UK-backed coalition supporting president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the British government has vowed to support the intervention “in every practical way short of engaging in combat”. British officials are also in the command and control centre for the strikes and have access to target lists.
The cost to Yemen has been immense. After 16 months of civil war, more than 6,500 people have died, according to the UN; 2.5 million have been displaced; over half the population faces severe food insecurity. Save the Children says one in three under-fives is suffering from acute malnutrition. Damage to infrastructure and economic losses have already amounted to more than $14bn, according to a joint report by the World Bank, United Nations, Islamic Development Bank and European Union, though that figure is likely to be a substantial underestimate since the research concluded earlier this year. The tally of damaged schools and unusable public hospitals is particularly horrifying in a country that was desperately poor even before the outbreak of war, when its per capita GDP stood at just under $1,100.
The devastation has not brought a resolution any closer. The government of President Hadi is recognised internationally, yet the Zaydi Shia Houthis – who have formed a marriage of convenience with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in the Arab spring – still hold Sana’a. A spate of bombings since the collapse of a four-month ceasefire earlier this month have killed 10 children at their school and hit a hospital, killing 14, as well as striking a food factory. Meanwhile, Houthis have renewed attacks across the border with Saudi Arabia, claiming more lives.
Britain bears much responsibility for this suffering – as does the US, which has overseen $110bn of arms sales to the Saudis under the Obama administration – and France. UK arms sales rules state that export licences should not be granted if there is a clear risk equipment could be used to break international humanitarian law. The British government says its licensing system is one of the most careful in the world. But on the kindest possible reading, the Saudi forces are incompetent in their attacks and, at worst, they are indifferent to the civilian deaths. In January, a UN panel warned of “widespread and systematic” attacks on targets such as schools, weddings, mosques and medical facilities, in violation of international law. The Foreign Office has just retreated on assurances that the Ministry of Defence assessments showed the coalition was not targeting civilians and had not breached human rights law. Late on the day that parliament went into recess, it issued written corrections, saying that the MoD had merely not assessed that the coalition was targeting civilians or breached human rights law.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade has now won the right to a judicial review of sales to Saudi Arabia, to be heard by February next year. Many more civilians are likely to die in the meantime. The ongoing conflict poses longer term risks to those outside the country too. The disintegration of Yemen is fertile ground for jihadist groups, in particular al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula and, to a lesser extent, Islamic State.
Britain and other arms exporters should suspend sales with immediate effect, halt other forms of support for the bombings and use their influence to revive the peace process. Reaching a workable and durable settlement will be difficult, though some observers had felt that the talks had appeared to be making progress prior to their suspension. Negotiations will need to acknowledge the international dimensions of this conflict. Saudi Arabia fears that the Houthis are proxies for Iran – though there is little evidence of significant support – reflecting its deep concerns about Iranian power in the region. Given the complexity of Yemeni society, talks will need to take in the concerns of many of the others involved: notably players such as southern secessionists and tribal leaders, but also representatives of women’s groups and other civil society activists. Finally, reconstruction will require the kind of support that has been lent to the military effort. Britain has profited at the expense of Yemeni civilians. It should now do its utmost to protect them.