Like much of the international community, I look on with despair as Yemen’s deadly conflict and humanitarian crisisenters its eight year. With two-thirds of the population in desperate need of aid and the country’s social fabric torn apart, the gravity of the humanitarian situation cannot be overstated.
Since 2015, Yemen has been devastated by intense fighting – between the Houthis, a militant Zaidi political movement assisted by Iran, and the internationally recognised government, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, and supported, through arms sales, by this UK Government. Since October last year, Oman has been facilitating peace talks, and last month’s events – which included constructive discussions between the Houthis and a Saudi delegation in Sana’a, as well as notable prisoner exchanges – offer hope that a peace settlement may be on the horizon.
I wish to focus, however, not on the military course of the war, nor on the complex political negotiations and geostrategic considerations of the state and non-state actors involved. Rather, I wish to encourage the reader to view this conflict through a human lens. Only by putting Yemeni civilians – and in particular children – are the forefront of our minds can we truly appreciate the devastating real-world consequences of this calamitous conflict and the shocking inadequacy of the UK Government’s response.
There are currently more than two million malnourished children in Yemen. Of those, 540,000 under the age of five are suffering from such severe hunger that, according to the World Health Organisation, they face a “direct risk of death.” As a result of the country’s collapsing infrastructure, millions lack access to basic healthcare, clean water, and sanitation facilities, and children’s education has been severely disrupted, with around two million not attending school.Moreover, as households continue to be driven into poverty,the country has seen an increase in child brides, with young girls being married off as a source of family income.
The lethal shadow of war has been cast upon the entire nation. Landmines and unexploded ordnances continue to kill and maim thousands of civilians, and instability has resulted in the internal displacement of 4 million. According to UNICEF, one child in Yemen dies from preventable causes every ten minutes.
Against this deadly backdrop, the UK Government has enacted a devastating aid cut. In 2020-21, it pledged £214 million in aid to Yemen. This year, it is only committing £88 million to the nation. That is an aid reduction of almost 60%.
This decision is not only unethical but is also wholly inconsistent with the Government’s eagerness to project a ‘Global Britain’ to the world – which indicates a heightened desire to defend universal human rights, support conflict resolution, and tackle extreme deprivation. The longer this funding shortfall is maintained, the slower and more limited our humanitarian reach in the country will inevitably be. The UK’s desire to be a force for good in the world must be underwritten by concrete action. The situation demands that we do more.
If inadequate humanitarian funding is one moral failing of this UK Government, then its decision to arm the Saudi-led coalition is another. Since it intervened in the conflict in 2015, air strikes led by the coalition have hit thousands of civilian targets including homes, hospitals and communication towers. The Saudi air campaign alone has killed approximately 9,000 civilians, eliciting strong condemnation from the Secretary General of the United Nations and numerous human rights organisations. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence of repeated breaches of international humanitarian law, this UK Government has chosen to continue to supply the coalition with weaponry.
The published value of UK arms licensed for export to the Saudi coalition since bombardment began in 2015 is £9.4bn. According to estimates from the Campaign Against Arms Trade however, the real value is nearly triple that figure. It is unconscionable that we are reaping the financial rewards of this brutality. The UK Government rightly condemned Moscow’s aggressive bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital, but where was the condemnation of the Saudi-led coalition when Yemen’s civilian infrastructure was targeted?Surely any profits from arms sales are rendered worthless when the cost is Yemeni civilians’ lives.
Whilst the recent proposals for a renewed ceasefire should be welcomed, the necessity of ending arms sales to the coalition is no less urgent. To claim, as the Foreign Secretary has done, that all export licences are assessed “in accordance with strict licensing criteria” is both dishonest and misleading, given theuse of these weapons in repeated attacks against Yemen civilians.
The UK Government must cease these arms exports immediately and commission an independent investigation into the involvement of UK weapons in possible crimes against humanity in the country. We need proper accountability and scrutiny. The Government cannot claim to care about safeguarding children’s rights whilst at the same time arming an international law-breaking regime which has deprived so many innocent Yemeni children of their futures.
Despite recent progress in talks between the belligerents, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis must not be relegated to the bottom of our foreign policy agenda. Communities must be rebuilt, and lives pieced back together. As the UN penholder for Yemen, the UK Government must do everything it can to advance diplomatic efforts as well as supporting the crucial work carried out by charities and non-governmental organisations on the ground.
Undoubtedly, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has exposed the contradiction in this UK Government’s foreign policy. How can they claim to prioritise the eradication of global poverty whilst continuing to enact devastating aid cuts? And how canthey affirm their commitment to human rights whilst arming a state that has demonstrably undermined them time and time again? The civilian population in Yemen are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. We need to, and must do, more.