Seven years of war in Yemen, the international community must not ignore the humanitarian crisis – Liberation


“It is clear from the speed of response of the international community to the crisis in Ukraine that where there is the political will it is possible to take action, target sanctions and generate widespread public sympathy.”

By Steve Bishop, Liberation

This weekend marks the seventh anniversary of the Saudi Arabia led coalition bombardment of Yemen.  As the world focuses upon events in Ukraine, and the action taken by the international community in that conflict, Steve Bishop highlights the current issues and action required to bring the war in Yemen higher up the international agenda.

The bombing of Yemen by the Saudi led coalition has devastated infrastructure across the country. Hospitals, clinics and vaccination centres have been amongst the targets. The blockade imposed by the coalition has resulted in widespread starvation and prevented hospitals from getting essential medical supplies.  Such supplies would be vital at any time but have exacerbated the issues faced by the people of Yemen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The forces of Saudi Arabia, along with those of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), invaded Yemen in March 2015 to reverse the popular uprising led by Houthi rebels.  The Saudis main war aim has been to reinstate the puppet leader, the unelected president Hadi, to power.  Hadi fled to Riyadh after being toppled by the Houthis (from north western Yemen) in September 2014. The Saudis regard the Houthis as being too closely aligned to its major regional rival, Iran.

All of the countries comprising the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) except Oman are supporting the war. Other Arab countries, such as Morocco, Egypt and Jordan have also offered help.

The UK, the United States and nations across the European Union are complicit in the ongoing war in Yemen. The US and Britain are providing intelligence and logistics while the use of UK-made fighter jets and UK-made bombs and missiles has had a devastating impact, including the loss of many civilian lives. The UK government has supported the coalition with billions of pounds of arms sales. Anti arms trade groups across Europe have also highlighted the role played by a number of other European countries in sustaining the war in Yemen.

However, over half of the combat aircraft used for bombing raids by the Saudis are supplied by the UK.  There can be little doubt that these weapons have been used in the attacks upon civilian targets and researchers on the ground in Yemen have retrieved material which backs this up.  This has included the retrieval of material from education establishments, warehouses and hospitals, none of which could be described as military targets.

As well as aircraft, the UK has supplied precision guided missiles and cluster bombs resulting, not only in devastating loss of life, but life altering injuries for those who do survive attacks.  With the medical infrastructure in a state of collapse, due to a combination of the bombings and the blockade of essential supplies, the United Nations has described Yemen as the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.  UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has described Yemen as being in “imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades”.   

Taking into account deaths directly as a result of the war and those from indirect causes, such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure, a new United Nations report has projected that the death toll from Yemen’s war will have reached 377,000 by the end of 2021.

In the report published in November, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that 70 percent of those killed would be children under the age of five. In 2020 the UN launched a $3.4 billion appeal for Yemen to address the humanitarian catastrophe.

The Saudi led airstrike on a prison in the city of Saada in Yemen in January this year, resulted in an estimated 80 dead and over 200 injured. At the same time, in a strike on the port city of Hodeidah in the south, three children were killed.

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, appealed to the international community to step up and provide urgently needed funds for aid programmes. Ms. Fore repeated the call on all parties to the conflict to ensure children are protected and that unhindered access to communities in need is ensured. It is estimated that an astonishing 80 per cent of the country’s population – over 24 million people – require some form of humanitarian assistance and protection, including more than 12 million children.  

The UK government has attempted to defend its position by pointing to the £1 billion in aid that has been provided to Yemen since the conflict began in March 2015.  However, as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) point out,

“The most recent government statistics show that the UK has licensed at least £6.5 billion worth of arms to the Saudi-led Coalition since the start of its ongoing bombing campaign in Yemen. The figure covers the period from March 26 2015, when the bombing began, until March 26 2020.”

In June 2019, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government acted unlawfully when it licensed the sale of UK-made arms to Saudi-led forces for use in Yemen without making an assessment as to whether or not past incidents amounted to breaches of International Humanitarian Law. This followed a case brought by CAAT. The government was ordered not to approve any new licences and to retake the decisions on extant licences in a lawful manner.

In July 2020 the government announced that it was resuming arms sales. Secretary of State for International Trade at that time, now Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, in a written statement to Parliament, said that the government had completed the review ordered by the Court of Appeal, and had determined that any violations of international law were “isolated incidents”. 

In October 2020 CAAT launched a new Judicial Review application into the legality of the government’s decision to renew arms sales. In April 2021 CAAT was granted permission for the appeal to proceed to the High Court, with the hearing likely to be later this year.

It is vital that the CAAT legal challenge is supported in order to challenge the position of the UK government.  Trade unionists and peace activists in the UK are being encouraged to lobby their MPs in order to highlight the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and put pressure upon the government to stop the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and its allies. 

It is clear from the speed of response of the international community to the crisis in Ukraine that where there is the political will it is possible to take action, target sanctions and generate widespread public sympathy.  For NATO the Russians are regarded as a threat and their action in Ukraine a potential brake upon NATO’s expansion plans.

The Saudi dictatorship, conversely, is seen as an ally as well as a major purchaser of UK and US arms.  The fact that more action has been taken in relation to Ukraine in four weeks, compared to the response of the international community to the seven year long crisis in Yemen, in itself speaks volumes.

The threat to gas and oil supplies due to the Ukraine crisis and the desire of the West to reduce its energy dependence upon Russia, has seen British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, touring the Middle East in recent days in an effort to drum up an energy deal.  With prices rising fast the potential for destabilisation of Western economies is real and the usual blind eye is being turned to the domestic atrocities in the Arab states as well as their international transgressions.

Peace and reconciliation based upon a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement is vital in Ukraine.  Seven years on it is no less vital in Yemen.  While the international community chooses to focus upon one area of conflict in the world, it should not be allowed to forget that there are others equally deserving of attention.

Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) and the Stop the War Coalition will be holding a joint webinar to mark the seventh anniversary of the start of the disastrous war in Yemen, and calling for its immediate cessation, on Saturday 26th March at 17:00 GMT.

This major event will feature a line-up of Yemeni, Saudi, Irish, and British speakers, all opposing the war and calling upon the US and British governments to stop the flood of weapons and military assistance to the reactionary regimes in the Persian Gulf region and thereby bring this atrocious crime against the people of Yemen to a close.

Featured Image: A neighbourhood in Sana, Yemen, a day after it was hit by a Saudi-led airstrike. Credit Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock. Licensed under 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Leave a Reply