As British politics reverberates with the results of the general election and Brexit approaches, the announcement from researchers that the death toll in the war in Yemen now exceeds 100,000 went unnoticed in the mainstream press at the end of last year.
Britain is intimately involved in the conflict. The UK, alongside the US, has been supplying weapons and providing military and diplomatic support to the Saudi-led coalition, which is responsible for the highest number of reported civilian fatalities, mostly from direct targeting in airstrikes. A report by a UN panel of experts states that individuals in the Saudi and UAE governments, as well as Houthi leaders, may be criminally liable for war crimes, and identifies the UK among arms-supplying states that may be legally responsible if standards for complicity are met.
In this context, where is the national debate about British involvement, and who is holding the government to account?
In June last year, the court of appeal found the UK government’s arms export policy towards Saudi Arabia to be unlawful, as it had failed to properly assess whether there was a past pattern of breaches of international law by the Saudi coalition. The court prohibited the government from issuing new licences to Saudi Arabia and compelled it to revisit its past decisions. It is now seven months since that ruling. Not a word of substance has been heard from the government about the progress of its review, let alone the outcome. In September, the government admitted “inadvertently” issuing new licences for the export of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition that could be used in the war in Yemen.
The legal battle takes place in a context of ongoing parliamentary malaise in the aftermath of the general election and in the run-up to Brexit.
The silence around UK involvement in the war in Yemen means that crucial questions are not being asked
All parliamentary committees are dissolved before an election, and the committees on arms export controls – a “super-committee” of MPs from the defence, foreign affairs, international development and international trade committees – has yet to be re-established in this parliament. The dissolution of the committees at the end of last year was no bad thing, given the combination of deep disagreement and paralysis that hampered their scrutiny of government policy. They have not met formally since May 2019 and in the last parliament the chairman refused to put the war in Yemen on the agenda.
The chairman, Graham Jones, lost his seat in the election. The opportunity for a new chair is to be welcomed, given Jones’s unabashed pro-Saudi and pro-UAE position, which undermined any credible interpretation of impartiality in the role. In December, an early day motion was tabled calling for the establishment of a committee on arms export controls as a full non-departmental select committee, with an elected chair, a standalone staff, and MPs dedicated to it. This would help to avoid the party-led games of chicken around quoracy and the politicking around the committees’ findings that so stymied them in the last parliament.
The silence surrounding UK involvement in the Yemen war imeans crucial questions are not being asked. What are the terms of reference and timeline for the government’s review of arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition, and for its review of the breaches of the court of appeal ruling? What weapons are being delivered to the Saudi-led coalition under existing licences, and when will BAE Systems and associated companies need to apply for new licences? Why does the government continue to refuse to gather data on actual deliveries of weapons exports, given its repeated insistence on the robustness of its arms export control regime? And crucially, who will be held accountable, and how, for any decisions that are found to breach the UK government’s commitment not to allow arms exports where there is a clear risk they might be used in violations of international law?
These may sound like technical questions, but it is through such technicalities that war and politics are carried out. Arms export decisions are deeply political, bound up with life and death for those on the receiving end, legitimised at home with the depoliticising language of national interest, jobs and security. As anyone who has tried to navigate the benefits or immigration systems can tell you, life-changing – indeed, sometimes life-ending – decisions are played out in everyday, small bureaucratic decisions.
UK arms sales should force us – if Britain had any proper sense of its post-imperial role on the world stage – to ask what sort of country Britain is. The government tells us it is working to promote the peace process in Yemen and is a major aid donor. But it’s also the second largest exporter of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, and has been instrumental in enabling a war that has decimated Yemen.
At home, government immigration policy centred on creating a hostile environment, and the upsurge in racist attacks since the Brexit referendum, close the feedback loop that connects foreign and domestic policy. As the country reorganises itself after the general election and Brexit continues to fracture public life, difficult questions about Britain’s role in the world are going unanswered.