The British government’s claims about the conduct of its ally Saudi Arabia in Yemen are self-serving and disingenuous. A year ago this week, a Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab countries launched military operations against Ansar Allah, the Houthi armed group, and in support of the Yemeni government. Since then at least 3,200 civilians have been killed and 5,700 wounded, 60 percent of them in coalition airstrikes, according to the United Nations.
From the outset, Human Rights Watch monitored the conduct of all parties to the conflict. We documented serious abuses by the Houthis, as well as far more lethal violations by the Saudi-led coalition, which is supported and armed - to the tune of £3 billion (US$4.3 billion) over the past 12 months - by the British government. We have investigated 36 unlawful coalition airstrikes, plus an additional 15 attacks using banned cluster munitions. Amnesty International has documented a further 26 unlawful strikes, and a recent UN Panel of Experts report identified 119 coalition sorties that violated international humanitarian law, including attacks on schools, medical facilities and markets.
Faced with this extensive body of evidence, it is preposterous for Foreign Minister Philip Hammond to claim he has “seen no evidence” of violations by the coalition.
British ministers make two further highly questionable claims: that they favor “proper investigations” into allegations of laws-of-war violations, and that the British government closely monitors the use of UK-made weapons in Yemen.
The Yemen National Commission, which Britain supports, has not conducted a single investigation since it was set up last year. Similarly, the Saudis’ own committee to assess its role in the conflict will not investigate “specific” airstrikes. The British government repeatedly cites these processes, but it is clear that they are both toothless and that the Saudi, Yemeni and indeed British governments have no interest in properly investigating responsibility for civilian deaths. The fact that the British helped kill a Dutch-led proposal at the Human Rights Council last year for a credible international investigation into violations in Yemen shows the hypocrisy of the government’s position.
Last November Hammond audaciously claimed the government monitors “very carefully” the coalition’s use of British weapons. Not that carefully, it seems. Just two months earlier the coalition used a British-made cruise missile to destroy a Yemeni ceramics factory in which one civilian died – an apparent unlawful attack.
Britain needs to be pressed to radically revise its approach. This week, Human Rights Watch and others are calling on the British and other governments to suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, pending serious coalition investigations into alleged laws-of-war violations. Anything less may make the British government complicit in war crimes, facilitate further violations and intensify the intolerable suffering of the Yemeni people.