British-made bombs in Saudi hands are destroying Yemen and crushing our aid efforts

23 Mar 2016
This month we learned that British sales of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen will be the subject of a full-scale inquiry in Parliament. The government is also facing a High Court challenge to examine whether its actions break British and EU arms export laws.
The British government has licensed £6.7 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia since David Cameron took office, including £2.8bn since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015. There have been strong claims, including by a UN panel, that the Saudi bombing campaign has included repeated breaches of human rights laws.
The cross-party committee conducting the inquiry is also likely to look at the role of the Department for International Development (DfID) in sanctioning arms sales. It has emerged that DfID was not consulted on the arms sales to Saudi Arabia, even though it has a major aid programme in Yemen.
Additionally, DfID itself is due to report before Easter on the broader aid implications of the government running an aid programme in Yemen while its arms sales help fuel civil war in that same country.
On the Labour side of the House of Commons, we are in no doubt that Britain’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia is undermining the humanitarian efforts of DfID, which gave £106 million in aid to Yemen in the past year.
In the first three months of this conflict, we approved £1.7bn worth of arms licences to Saudi Arabia — £400m more than the total global aid given to Yemen over the same period.
The results of the Saudi war on Yemen have been, in the words of the UN’s Yemen envoy Johannes van der Klauwe, “a humanitarian catastrophe.” Currently 60 per cent its population of 14.4m are going hungry. In December, Save the Children assessed that the conflict had put 1.8 million children out of school and damaged 1,000 schools beyond use.
As Labour’s shadow international development secretary, I and my colleagues have been arguing for some time that inquiries into this issue were necessary. The government’s response has been far from satisfactory.
For example, at recent international development questions in Parliament, Development Minister Desmond Swayne rejected the position of Save the Children, Unicef, Oxfam and Saferworld that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia — £3bn in the first six months of the war alone — undermine Britain’s development efforts in Yemen.
“There is no evidence that I have that that is the case,” Swayne said. “I reject it.”
He is not the only minister scrambling to defend the indefensible. Last month, Philip Hammond responded to a question by my colleague Hilary Benn on whether British troops on the ground monitoring the bombing campaign had reported “potential breaches of international humanitarian law.” Hammond said that the troops had not reported any “deliberate” war crimes, implying reports of accidental war crimes had been passed to him.
Even worse, in an answer to my parliamentary question, Hammond’s deputy Tobias Ellwood demonstrated he believes that that Saudi Arabia is not at risk of breaking international humanitarian law. Perhaps he has not read the UN’s report, which said Saudi Arabia’s coalition had done just that 119 times.
It’s time the government remembered the cardinal rule of development — do no harm — and recognises that conflict exacerbates existing humanitarian crises. That’s basic common sense, backed up by hard evidence and harder experience.
And while the government regularly claims that Britain has “one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world,” this has been shown to be manifestly untrue by the Saudi war on Yemen. If the UN, rights groups and the international media are reporting Saudi Arabian war crimes in Yemen, why has Britain denied only eight out of well over 100 Saudi requests for our arms?
The Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war must prompt us to ask ourselves searching questions about our arms industry. When Saudi Arabia or Bahrain buy our arms, they also buy our silence on their human rights abuses. We must now have the moral courage to end this silence.

* Originally published at

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