Last week, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson took to the despatch box to condemn violent atrocities taking place in Syria, stating that purposely attacking a hospital constituted war crimes, questioning the whereabouts of the Stop the war Coalition, and suggesting Russian actions in the area should be investigated and protested against. Johnson, who wrote an article in December titled “Lets deal with the Devil: we should work with Vladamir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria” appears to be agreeing with many liberal democracies who have been quick to condemn violence and human rights violations for increasingly horrific numbers of civilians in the midst of conflict in the Middle East. Yet his now condemnation of Russian assistance to Syria can only be praised in isolation and ignorance of our own actions in the region: UK relations with Saudi Arabia, that he is yet to comment on.
In Yemen, the humanitarian crisis continues to escalate as Saudi Arabia insists its airstrikes are legal and consistent with international law. On this premise, the UK has continued to provide the dictatorship with military arms, and US has declared its support for the country’s actions towards Yemen. On January 17th however, a Yemeni hospital whose coordinates where provided to the Saudi Arabian government was directly hit during airstrikes, just one of many examples of international war crimes carried out by the Saudi government. Yet as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson is turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia and the many thousands of casualties and deaths in Yemen. Instead, he calls for a protest outside the Russian embassy, a feeble and hypocritical attempt at foreign policy.
The UK has had close relations with Saudi Arabia for decades, and since the 1960s the dictatorship has been a major buyer of UK arms. Saudi Arabia, who have been using military action in Yemen since March 2015, are widely criticized for female oppression, have held mass beheadings recently, and are now known to have helped fund ISIS. Whilst their actions in Yemen are attempting to reinstate President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, in the face of rebel forces, the human rights and international law violations conducted by Saudi Arabia appear numerous. While maintaining it’s position as the biggest buyer of UK arms, Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen with tactics that have been accused of purposely, and illegally, targeting horrifically high numbers of civilians. Recently they admitted, after initially denying involvement, that they bombed the funeral of a Yemeni Minister killing at least 140 citizens in the process. The UN reported that 13.6 million people in Yemen are now being targeted for emergency life-saving assistance, but by the end of June only 25% of the funding humanitarian partners needed to do so had been granted. Amnesty International report that at least 83% of the population is in dire need of humanitarian aid. Yet regardless of the moral and political arguments against countries supporting Saudi Arabia, which may be debated, the legal restrictions surrounding UK arms deals have been disobeyed on all domestic, European and International levels.
Domestically, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has proposed legal action against the UK government with regards to arms sales worth £5.6 billion to Saudi Arabia since David Cameron became Prime Minister. Amnesty International argued the UK ‘fuelled this … conflict through reckless arms sales which break its own laws.’ The UK have insisted the legality of their actions, yet their own Committee on Arms Export Controls wrote to Johnson on 21st September recommending the support of an independent enquiry into Saudi Arabia, a letter he has failed to respond to, or publicly refer to. The UK has also heavily emphasized that they are aware of no certain evidence of criminality, ignoring the provisions within their laws for the potential of arms sold being used in war crimes, a potential clear within Saudi Arabia. As far back as August 2015 for example, there are reports of the direct bombings of schools that were still in use. The fact that some were directly hit on more than one occasion implies their status as a target.
Wider European laws also condemn the UK’s actions. Within Article two of the EU Common Council’s position on arms sales, the criteria for arms export licenses require ‘respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law’, a requirement undoubtedly violated by Saudi Arabia given the domestic situation and consequences for the vast majority of Yemeni citizens. In response to the humanitarian needs in Yemen, the European Union reported recommendations in 2015 for the region including investing in civil institutions and the legal structures in order to re-establish peace and law of order, action far from the supply of missiles being pursued by the UK. Whilst he was Foreign Secretary in 2015, Phillip Hammond insisted there was no evidence of humanitarian law violations within Yemen, the same year the EU gave €37 million in humanitarian aid to the country.
Internationally, many have accused Saudi Arabia of committing numerous War Crimes, and hence the US of supporting such crimes, and the UK of supplying them with the resources to do so. May have reported instances where air strikes in Yemen have been targeted at domestic households that had no evidence or suggestion of being used for military purposes, a clear crime against innocent civilians and against International Humanitarian Laws. While the US Secretary of State John Kerry has declared US support for Saudi Arabia in 2016, the Arms Trade Treaty 2014, signed by the UK and US, states arms should not be sold by a state if they have knowledge that they will be used for crimes against humanity, attacks on civilians or any other form of war crime. The UN states ‘A serious violation of international humanitarian law is a war crime…a violation is serious, if it endangers protected persons (e.g. civilians, prisoners of war, the wounded and sick).’ The targeting of innocent civilians is therefore also a grave breech of the Geneva Convention 1949, and the supply of arms to those who do so is a direct violation of the International Arms Trade Treaty. The UN however, have failed to open an investigation into Saudi action in Yemen, with the recent UN Resolution on Yemen making no reference to the Saudi led coalition, a resolution partly drafted by Saudi representatives.
In 2013, Prime Minister Theresa May supported David Cameron when he strongly advocated for the Arms Trade Treaty arguing it would save lives and ease human suffering globally, but she cannot choose to excuse suffering which can provide economic gain. At a time when threats to innocent civilians comes from a variety of sources, and the question of national security and citizen safety is high on the agenda, Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, and the UK and US’s support cannot go unquestioned. Western democracies have been quick to condemn others aiding and creating civilian deaths and humanitarian crises globally, whilst benefitting illegally from aiding Saudi Arabia to do just that. You may agree with Boris Johnson’s comments on Russian action in Syria, but to do so and agree with current UK foreign policy is contradictory. Johnson has not been Foreign Secretary long, but his recent suggestion that protesting the Russian Embassy is an international priority is frankly insulting to the British people, and potentially fatal to thousands of Yemeni citizens.