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War in the Yemen and the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia

The below speech was made by the author in the House of Lords on 1 April 2019 in the House of Lords

My Lords, in the aftermath of António Guterres’s assertion that Yemen is,

“the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”,

the International Affairs Committee has provided the House with a succinct, brave and timely report.

Yemen’s victims are disfigured by grinding poverty, caught in a cycle of declining GDP, the collapsing Yemeni rial, accelerating food and fuel prices and, as the United Nations Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs described in a recent report, it has,

“A higher percentage of people face death, hunger and disease than in any other country …

Eighty percent of the entire population requires some form of humanitarian assistance and protection …

Twenty million Yemenis need help securing food and a staggering 14 million people are in acute humanitarian need …

Ten million people are one step away from famine and starvation …

Seven million, four hundred thousand people, nearly a quarter of the entire population, are malnourished, many acutely so …

Two million malnourished children under five and 1.1 million pregnant and lactating women require urgent treatment to survive …

Conditions are worsening at a nearly unprecedented rate”.

In what is, increasingly, a breeding ground for the next wave of ISIS recruiting sergeants, it is reported that in western Yemen hidden landmines have taken the lives of 267 civilians, also claiming the lives of five charity workers who were demining the area.

Aid agencies estimate a 63% increase in gender-based violence, 1.3 million suspected cases of cholera—the worst outbreak in modem history—with coalition airstrikes destroying water treatment facilities, crippling access to clean water.

In a war crime warranting prosecution, five medical facilities run by Médecins Sans Frontières have been bombed since 2015.

Despite the three-month-old truce in Hodeidah, according to UNICEF,

“At least one child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen from malnutrition and preventable diseases”.

In December, UNICEF reported:

“Over 6,700 children were verified killed or severely injured. Nearly 1.5 million children have been displaced, many of them living a life that is a mere shadow of what childhood should be. In Yemen today, 7 million children go to sleep hungry every night. Every single day, 400,000 children face life-threatening severe acute malnutrition and could die any minute. More than 2 million children are out of school; those who are in school often have to settle for poor quality education in overcrowded classrooms”.

As the conflict and the humanitarian crisis rage on, the estimated cost, as we have heard during this debate, has reached staggering sums of billions of dollars.

In evidence to the committee, the then Minister Alistair Burt—an old friend of mine—described Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s,

“huge existential fears for their states”,

but, as the report says, he also said that,

“Opponents of the Saudi-led coalition had used a ‘very easy narrative’ that had ‘misunderstood the nature of this conflict’”.

He insisted that the UK was,

“not a party to the military conflict as part of the coalition”,

but this is a very elastic definition.

Last week, as we have heard, national newspapers reported:

“Members of the Special Boat Service … were shot while fighting in the Saadah area in the north of the country”.

How is that not taking part in the military conflict?

However, it is far worse than that.

Over four years, the coalition has carried out over 19,000 air strikes—one every 106 minutes.

In 2019, the UN panel of experts on Yemen said that precautionary measures to protect civilians are “largely inadequate and ineffective”.

The UK has provided training in targeting weapons, along with liaison officers at Saudi headquarters, resupplied Saudi air capability and provided technical maintenance and spare parts.

We have licensed £4.7 billion of arms exports to the Saudis, along with a further £860 million of arms to their coalition partners.

As only second to the United States in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, we have stoked the fires of this conflict by selling arms to a country which has exported terror and ideology.

We have acted as quartermaster to the conflict and then salve our consciences by boasting about how much aid we have given to the suffering people of Yemen.

Although Ministers have played a constructive role in promoting United Nations Security Council Resolution 2451 and encouraging the work of the admirable Martin Griffiths, special envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General, in brokering the Stockholm agreement, our own credibility in this process is damaged when, as the report says, in their licensing of arms sales to Saudi Arabia the Government are “narrowly on the wrong side” of international law,

“given the volume and type of arms being exported to the Saudi-led coalition”.

The report goes on to say that these sales,

“are highly likely to be the cause of significant civilian casualties in Yemen”.

When he comes to reply, I hope that the Minister will respond to the call of the 25 Yemeni and global NGOs which have called on Germany to extend its moratorium on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and tell us whether he is comfortable that we have not done the same.

The UK’s response and that of France—countries which both produce arms that require parts and components of German origin—has been for the UK to actively lobby Germany to lift its moratorium.

This demonstrates again how we are stepping over the line, and it risks weakening international standards for arms control.

Indeed, it may violate our obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty including:

“Respecting and ensuring respect for international humanitarian law”,

and preventing human suffering.

I might add that, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, the US Congress has voted to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen—although the White House has signalled that, if necessary, it will veto this

Knowing of the attacks on civilians and atrocities in Yemen while still providing the weapons to Saudi Arabia makes Her Majesty’s Government complicit in those atrocities.

Your Lordships may recall that both Yemen and Saudi Arabia are accused of having committed war crimes; hence, Her Majesty’s Government could fall within the ambit of complicity.

Contrary to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Her Majesty’s Government are subject to the International Criminal Court, and Ministers should urgently seek the advice of the Government’s law officers on this matter.

If they seriously want to see an end to the carnage and suffering in Yemen, the Government should immediately end their complicity in this disgraceful business and make it clear that this appalling campaign of killing is not to be conducted in our name.

About Lord David Alton of Liverpool

Profile photo of Lord David Alton of Liverpool
For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer. He began his career as a teacher and, in 1972, while still a student, he was elected to Liverpool City Council as Britain’s youngest City Councillor. In 1979 he became the youngest member of the House of Commons and, in 1997, and when he stood down from the Commons, he was appointed a Life Peer. His motto on his Coat of Arms is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy: Choose Life.

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