The Paradox of Britain’s role in Yemen’s unfolding disaster. Guest post by Mark Goldring

September 11, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

While all eyes are on Syria, a humanitarian disaster is fast unfolding in Yemen, and the UK government’s role is Mark Goldringambiguous. Here Mark Goldring, Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, explains why it is challenging the government on the ‘paradox’ of the UK’s approach and introduces a new report, released today.

Twenty one million people in Yemen are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. This year the UK government has already given £55 million in humanitarian aid. But, at the same time the UK has continued to arm Saudi Arabia as they conduct airstrikes on Yemen which harm civilians.

The UK lobbied for years for the Arms Trade Treaty that came into force last December. But at the first test of the new law, it has turned a blind eye to mounting evidence of potential misuse of its weapons.

Millions of Yemenis are suffering from a water crisis and have to walk long distances to collect a few litres of water for their families, July 2015. Credit: Oxfam

Millions of Yemenis are suffering from a water crisis and have to walk long distances to collect a few litres of water for their families, July 2015. Credit: Oxfam

There was a time when humanitarian agencies thought relatively little about the causes of the suffering they sought to relieve. Thirty years ago, the world responded to Ethiopia’s terrible famine with enormous generosity that saved thousands of lives.  But like so many disasters before it, it was a crisis in the midst of conflict, and the world seemed to have no way of bringing it to an end.

The catastrophes of the ‘90s were no less terrible – the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia perhaps worst of all. But humanitarians, journalists and others became more vocal that humanitarian aid was both vital and not enough at the same time. When Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said that ‘there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems,’ she spoke for many – determined, more than ever before, to tackle the causes as well as the consequences of human suffering.

Some of those causes were landmines and the other arms that flooded the conflicts of the time. One of my predecessors, David Bryer, who led Oxfam through most of the ‘90s, challenged us all in 1992 to tackle the scourge of landmines. And perhaps more than anyone else, the International Committee of the Red Cross galvanised humanitarian agencies to campaign for the international ban that was eventually agreed in 1997.

The UK was a laggard in that worldwide effort, far slower than many other governments to ban landmines – despite Diana landminesthe tremendous work of thousands in the UK including of course, famously, Princess Diana.

But Oxfam’s passion was always to stop civilians being killed and injured, not whether they were being killed or injured by mines, missiles or any other weapon. That’s why we challenged the then Government when its ‘ethical dimension’ of foreign policy didn’t stop it sending arms to Zimbabwe or Colombia, and we condemned British arms exports to Indonesia at the height of its involvement in East Timor’s bloodshed in 1999.  Indeed, as a result of pressure from Oxfam and many others, British arms sales to Indonesia were stopped for some time.

But for many of the last few years, we’ve been allies as often as critics of UK politicians of all sides, as Conservative, Labour and other parties have championed the call for an international Arms Trade Treaty, an idea we developed with Amnesty International and others in the Control Arms coalition launched in 2003, and which became international law in December 2014.

Houses destroyed in air strikes near Sana'a airport, Yemen, March 2015. Credit: Abbo Haitham

Houses destroyed in air strikes near Sana’a airport, Yemen, March 2015. Credit: Abbo Haitham


Politicians and aid agencies do not always agree, but the international campaign for that Treaty showed the UK and other governments working together with the Control Arms coalition of agencies that Oxfam continues to be part of.

Well before the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was incorporated into UK law last year, Britain  had one of the toughest systems to licence arms exports in the world. Like the ATT, they’re designed to prevent British arms harming civilians or violating international humanitarian law, irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the conflict concerned.  But the strongest regulations in the world don’t mean that they’re always applied well – and today’s Government is no more immune from that than the last one.

That’s why we’re throwing a spotlight today on how the UK has continued to arm Saudi Arabia since it began leading a coalition of Gulf countries in airstrikes on Yemen in March – to “defend the legitimate government” of President Hadi, it said, against Houthi rebels.

Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East, wracked by conflict and struggling in a transition to a more secure future. But since March, its devastating conflict has made matters extraordinarily worse. More than 1.4 million people have fled their homes; more than four out of five Yemenis need humanitarian aid. And all parties to Yemen’s conflict – including the Houthi armed groups as well as members of the Saudi-led coalition – have killed civilians in a manner that Amnesty International has said ‘could amount to war crimes’.

None of this acceptable.  Even wars are meant to have laws, whatever the rights or wrongs of the warring parties.  When Houthi artillery or Saudi airstrikes hit civilian areas, in both cases it is utterly wrong.

So what’s this to do with the UK? Well, on the one hand, the UK has given more than £55 million in new humanitarian aid since January this year, and the Development Secretary, Justine Greening, has warned that ‘millions face starvation’ as the conflict continues.

But there’s a paradox at the heart of the UK’s approach. While providing that vital aid, the Government has also authorised British bombs to be exported to the Saudi Air Force at a time when the UN and human rights groups have condemned all parties, the Saudi-led coalition and Houthis alike, of failing to meet their responsibilities under international humanitarian law to distinguish between civilians and military targets. And at the same time the UK continues its maintenance for the military equipment the UK has supplied in the past, with MoD military and civilian personnel, as well as BAE Systems staff stationed in Saudi Arabia to support the Royal Saudi Air Force.BAE and Saudi

That’s the distressing paradox that we’re highlighting today in our new briefing: British aid and British arms: a coherent approach to Yemen? Irresponsible arms exports are not the only things that sustain the terrible conflicts that cause so much of the humanitarian suffering that we face. But they are one. From Syria to South Sudan, Oxfam sees the human cost of those conflicts, which is why we often feel compelled not only to highlight that suffering but to call on all governments to prevent arms exports harming civilians by any side.

This blog was first posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice

September 11, 2015
Duncan Green