The UK Government is fuelling the conflict in Yemen and is potentially violating both domestic and international laws on the sales of arms, Oxfam has warned.
While the UK is not directly involved in the bombing of Yemen, UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia might be contributing to the growing number of civilian deaths, putting the government in breach of laws which prohibit arms deals where there is a clear risk that they might be used to commit war crimes or human rights abuses.
The government has declined to give Parliament details on the numbers of weapons being sold or what the UK is supplying.
Human rights agencies have documented various examples of breaches of international humanitarian law and potential war crimes on both sides of the conflict. In August Amnesty International published a report that documented eight airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition between June and July which killed at least 141 civilians and injured 101 others.
Many of those killed were found to be women and children and the investigation revealed a pattern of strikes targeting heavily-populated areas including civilian homes, a school, a market and a mosque – in the majority of these cases no military targets were nearby.
Yemen is among the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with at least 1,500 civilians killed and over one million people displaced since hostilities escalated in the region in March.
Oxfam acknowledged that the UK’s Department for International Development is currently a leader in funding humanitarian aid for the 21 million people (84% of the population) in need, but said this work is being undermined by the sale of arms.
Mark Goldring, Oxfam’s chief executive said in a statement: “Yemen has descended into a humanitarian disaster putting its people at risk of famine and the UK is materially involved through its export of arms and military support to the bombing campaign. An estimated eight children a day are killed or injured in Yemen’s conflict. The on-going conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis it has produced show why it is so vitally important to search for political solutions before it is too late. It is time the government stopped supporting this war and put every possible effort into bringing an end to the carnage.
“There is a paradox at the heart of the government’s approach to Yemen. On the one hand the Department for International Development is funding efforts to help civilians caught up in the conflict, while on the other the Government is fuelling the conflict that is causing unbearable human suffering.
“The UK successfully lobbied hard over many years for a UN Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the arms trade which came into being last year. This Government has incorporated the treaty into national law, yet at the first test of the new law it has turned a blind eye to mounting evidence of potential misuse of its weapons and support.”
Oxfam points out that all sides in the conflict are responsible for causing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and that the UK is not alone in selling arms and supporting those involved. Several other countries, including the US, Russia, Iran, Germany and France have reportedly also supplied arms to the parties now fighting in Yemen.
Oxfam said the Government should immediately suspend arms shipments and military support to Saudi Arabia and undertake an investigation into whether UK arms have been used in attacks that may have breached international humanitarian law.
London is currently preparing to host the Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) event, one of the world’s largest arms fairs.
The UK Government is responsible for inviting all foreign delegations to DSEI and in 2013 eight of the nine Arab states which make up the Saudi coalition involved in Yemen were in attendance.
DSEI – which is set to take place at London Docklands on 15 September – is heavily subsidised by the UK taxpayer through the UK Trade & Investment’s Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO). Information released under the Freedom of Information Act and seen by UK newspaper, The Independent shows that 61 countries have received official invitations, including Saudi Arabia and a number of regimes criticised for poor human rights records such as, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Egypt.
In 2014 the UK Government approved arms export licences to 18 countries which were listed on its own 2014-15 Human Rights and Democracy Report as “countries of concern”. These included Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iraq, who are all currently involved in conflicts where civilians are paying the price and have resulted in the largest number of refugees worldwide since the Second World War.
It was also reported in 2014 that more than 200 arms export licences to sell to weapons to Russia were in place despite David Cameron claiming that the government had imposed an arms embargo against the country.