I hadn’t much hope for the ceasefire and UN sponsored peace talks that both started on Tuesday, believing that it would end in nothing with all sides blaming each other; but I had to hope because Yemen needs optimism. As the week comes to an end and the peace talks and ceasefire seem to be unravelling as I predicted, it’s still hard for me to accept. I entered my submission on the Yemen Crisis to the UK government this week; £400 million of development aid was spent on Yemen in the last five years, all now wasted as Yemen is being rapidly destroyed in this unforgiving war.
But first, I want to discuss another big story of the week; the suggestion that the British government could be implicated in providing weapons to Saudi Arabia to enable them to continue their war crimes on Yemen, despite protests from various peace and human rights organisations who repeatedly over months pointed out the illegality of many of the Saudi-led coalition’s war activities.
This was clear from the start, when Saudi Arabia immediately declared Saada governate to be a military zone although Saada was home to hundreds of thousands of civilians, most of whom had never belonged to a militia and had never threatened any other country – or person. Because of the high fertility rate in Yemen, half of the civilian population living there are and were children. Although the coalition first dropped letters telling residents they were going to destroy their homes, there was nowhere for them to go and they either dispersed or lived in makeshift tents that have also been subject to further bombing raids; on 30th March around 200 people died when a displaced persons camp was destroyed. Saada province is the homeland of the Bakil tribe, a Zaidi tribe from which the ‘Believing Youth’ Zaidi revivalist group emerged in the 1990s, that later developed into militia that fought in seven wars with the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia. This Shia militia became known as ‘the Houthis’, and it seems that these attacks were intended to disperse or kill their tribe. As pointed out by Martin Shaw: “…(genocide is) a form of violent social conflict or war, between armed power organisations that aim to destroy civilian social groups and those groups and other actors who resist this destruction”. The reality in northwest Yemen has enough identifiers with genocide theory to ring alarm bells in those providing the assailants with weapons.
Further attacks on civilians that have raised the question of war crimes include the bombing of a civilian compound in Mokha on 24th July when 65 civilians died; the bombing of a water bottling plant killing up to 34 on 30th August; the aerial assault of two weddings on 28th September and 8th October killing 131 and 47 respectively. Additionally there have been attacks on hospitals and schools, on an Oxfam warehouse, on facilities of Save the Children, on dozens of hospitals including two MSF hospitals, on schools, on cranes for unloading containers at the port of Hodeida. Amnesty said the evidence revealed a pattern of air strikes targeting heavily populated areas, including homes, a school, a market and a mosque. Their report said that in the majority of cases no military target was nearby. A senior crisis response adviser Donatella Rovera said: “Coalition forces have blatantly failed to take necessary precautions to minimise civilian casualties, an obligation under international humanitarian law. A recent report showed evidence of remnants of British bombs in civilian targets.
Additionally, a blockade of all goods entering Yemen has caused 85% of Yemenis (21 million people) to be suffering from ‘severe acute food insecurity’ and this week I read that one million children are estimated to be suffering from severe malnutrition. Many of them are likely to die as 58% of people have no access to hospitals due to the blockade and war. The British navy has assisted the Saudi navy with a cruel blockade to a country that normally imports 90% of its goods; ironically currently ships loaded with humanitarian aid from Britain cannot enter the port of Hodeida – the only port supplying the north of Yemen – because British ships are stopping them from doing so.
Munitions estimated to be worth £1.75 billion were exported to Saudi Arabia between January and June this year; a total order of £3.8 billion has been placed. In March Philip Hammond the Defence Secretary stated that Britain would do everything to support the Saudi campaign in Yemen except directly taking part in the conflict; in July it was reported that Paveway IV bombs were being diverted from the RAF to Saudi Arabia. The British position until recently was that Saudi Arabia had assured them that British ordinance was not being used in illegal war activity and they were relying on Saudi Arabian officials to tell the British government if they did so.
In November lawyer representing the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) told the BBC: “The UK has a very clear legal regime, and that regime says that the UK won’t provide licenses for arms exports if there is a clear risk there may be violations of international humanitarian law…the current position of the UK government is unlawful.” The Arms Trade Treaty, which came into force last December, prohibits the sale of weapons where there is a clear risk they could be used for war crimes.
Following the threat of legal action, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that “the Saudi military’s attitude to humanitarian law is careless. Officials fear that the combination of British arms sales and technical expertise used to assist bombing raids on Yemen could result in the UK being hauled before the International Criminal Court on charges relating to direct attacks on civilians.” The blaming of Saudi Arabia when the UK government has repeatedly been told of evidence of war crimes from multiple sources does not seem credible. I have heard that the government is very worried about the threat of legal action. Although the Houthi-Saleh alliance has also committed war crimes, the British government has not supplied them with weapons.
So we now wait to see what happens next. A catch up on the peace talks – the parties agreed to a prisoner swap although the Houthi-Saleh alliance has retained three senior prisoners until Saudi Arabia stops its campaign in Yemen. Taiz can receive humanitarian aid – which can be supplied from Aden port, which the Saudi-led coalition controls. A team has been agreed to oversee the ceasefire, consisting of members from all sides, with a Lebanese team leader. Those reporting on the conflict seem to think that one of the problems is that the sponsors of this war are not at the table, so each party seems to be unable to make decisions without consulting people not at the talks.
And meanwhile, the violations of the ceasefire by both sides continue, with the BBC reporting that the Saudi-led coalition has made big military gains during the ceasefire. In protest at the lack of protests by the UN over these military manoeuvres, the Houthi delegates have left the peace negotiations indefinitely. The difficulty for the Saudi-led coalition is that 9 months of killing and destruction has not resulted in any gains, and they need to have gains to ‘prove’ their action was justified. I’m not sure what will happen next; the battle remains at stalemate and the killing goes on.
Jones, A. (2011) The Origins of Genocide, 2nd Edition, Routledge, Abingdon, p20.