Six years of war in Yemen has created the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster – made possible by British government support

Zarah Sultana


Photo: Alisdare Hickson


On the morning of 9 August 2018 in Dahyan, Yemen, a group of school children were on a day trip. Their bus driver stopped to pick up refreshments. Then, as the children sat looking forward to their day out, their bus was hit by an airstrike.

At least 40 children were killed, along with around a dozen adults. A further 63 people were injured.

The bomb had been dropped by a Saudi jet, whose authorities later admitted that there were no military targets in the area. The strike was a mistake, they said.

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the start of that British-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The airstrike that took the lives of dozens of Yemeni children is just one of countless apparent war crimes that have been committed by the Saudi-led coalition. More than a quarter of a million Yemenis have been killed by the war, which has triggered the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis.’

More than 20 million Yemenis are facing starvation, including 13 million children. 80% of the population is now dependent on aid. On top of it all, the country is experiencing a second Covid-19 wave, with Doctors Without Borders yesterday calling for a rapid scaling-up of the country’s pandemic emergency response.

This horrific war is a scandal – and it’s a British scandal.

As an expert on the war has observed, bombs supplied by Britain are dropped from planes built by Britain, flown by pilots trained by Britain and kept in the sky with British maintenance. The war and the humanitarian crisis would not be happening as it is without British support.

Since the war began, the UK government has issued arms export licences worth at least £6.8 billion to the Saudis. Figures revealed in response to a parliamentary written question I put down, showed that between 2015 and 2020, the Ministry of Defence recorded 516 known instances of alleged breaches of international law. That would be around two war crimes every week.

And yet last summer, the Conservatives decided that these violations are not systematic, in spite of their repeated, consistent occurrence, and so it resumed granting export licenses to the Saudis. And since then, it has authorised £1.4 billion more in arms sales.

This humanitarian scandal should be leading the front pages of the newspapers, day in, day out. But instead, the government is allowed to get away with murder.

In parliament earlier this month, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, James Cleverly, had the gall to claim that improving the conditions of Yemenis was ‘a priority for this government.’ This was despite the fact that that very week the government had slashed aid to Yemen by more than 50% – condemned as a ‘death sentence’ for Yemenis by the UN Secretary General – and continues to licence billions of pounds worth of weapons sales to the Saudis.

The duplicity is astounding. In response to my question highlighting the hypocrisy, he made out that Saudi Arabia is the victim and is merely defending itself. He said the aim is to bring an end to the conflict. If that were really the aim, it’s clear what action the government would take.

Earlier this year, human rights campaigners pressured the Italian government to cease arms sales to the Saudis. The Biden administration has issued a temporary pause on sales for use in the war. The UK government has refused to follow suit and is now the West’s biggest backer of the war.

When even US foreign policy shames Britain, you know how bad things must be. The Conservatives like to boast about Britain’s role on the world stage. They claim that the UK is a champion of justice and democracy across the globe.

Their record in Yemen is just the latest example of what a cruel joke this is. Far from promoting human rights, they are contributing to one of the most horrific wars and humanitarian catastrophes of recent times.

An alliance with the Saudis – and deference to arms dealer profits – has been put above the lives of the Yemeni people.

Today, as we mark six years since the war began, we must raise our voice demanding the UK ends its support for the war. The weapons sales, the military assistance, and the diplomatic support must end.

Instead of promoting war and imperialism, the UK must finally stand up for justice and peace on the world’s stage.

26 Mar 2021

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