The war in Yemen is the largest humanitarian disaster on the planet today – and it’s one that’s almost entirely man-made. Some estimate that almost 60,000 people have been killed since March 2015, and thousands more injured. Over 17 million Yemeni people cannot be sure of having enough to eat each day, leaving the country on the brink of famine. More than half a million people have had to flee their homes.
All sides have shown disregard for Yemeni civilians, including Saudi Arabia, who are backed by the UK Government and are using British-made bombs. The Saudi-led coalition intervened on behalf of the democratically elected government, authorised by a UN resolution, but the Saudi’s conduct has been appalling, with indiscriminate airstrikes hitting hospitals, schools, weddings, and grain silos. At one point 60% of civilian deaths were the responsibility of the Saudi-led coalition.
More disgraceful still is that this Government knows this and yet has continued to license UK weapons sales – almost £5 billion of them – to the Saudis. The Tories have shown fragrant disregard to the Arms Trade Treaty, a treaty that Labour helped support through the UN when we were last in government. That treaty requires arms sales to be suspended if there is even a risk – yet alone an occurrence – that arms risk being used in a violation of humanitarian law. We’ve long passed that point in Yemen.
By and large Labour has been at the forefront of holding the Tories to account on Yemen, from the frontbench to dogged campaigning by Labour MPs on key select committees and on the backbenches (including our very own Vice-President Stephen Doughty). A few Labour MPs legitimately worry about threats from the arms industry that jobs will be lost if arm sales are suspended. Given that the UK arms industry is the second biggest in the world, they are surely bluffing. I don’t want to see anyone lose their job – but we have a clear moral obligation here to prevent more civilians from dying in Yemen, and to uphold international law.
We are a long way from an end to this horrid conflict. There is at least a precarious ceasefire in the key port city of Hudaydah, and reports at the weekend suggest that talks could soon take place in Jordan between both sides to discuss the state of the economy. It’s vital both occur if people are to have any hope of getting the supplies of food and medicine they so desperately need.
The Tories will defend themselves by pointing to the efforts they’ve put into the recent ceasefire and the amount of UK humanitarian aid they’ve given to the crisis. It is absolutely essential that such aid continue, but doesn’t make up for their failure to stop licensing arms sales. They must:
- Use our influence at on the UN Security Council to push for a ceasefire across Yemen, not just Hudaydah.
- Suspend UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
- Commit to ensuring that all perpetrators of violations of international law must be held to account, through independent investigations.
As Labour members we can help by asking our MPs to call on the government to do the above, and by joining charity campaigns on Yemen – you can sign petitions by Oxfam and Save the Children, and if you can, donate to charities operating in the country.
It is time Britain begun to un-do some of the damage, and help push instead for a lasting peace in Yemen.
David Taylor is the founder and current Vice-Chair of the Labour Campaign for International Development.