The UK has contributed to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: the Yemen conflict. Persistent bombing has destroyed the lives of millions. The UK government’s most recent decision regarding Yemen is a drastic cutting of aid to the region. This has prompted huge outcry, but is sadly one of many immoral choices made by the Government in this conflict.
Yemen has been in a state of war for seven years. In 2014, Houthi (Shiite Muslim) rebels with links to Iran rose up against the Sunni government. They seized the capital, Sana’a, protesting against fuel prices and demanded a new government. The following year, an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched an operation to restore the fallen government. Conflict has ensued since, supported by American intelligence and weapons. The Arab-US side has been fiercely criticised for their relentless bombing campaign, which has destroyed civilian life.
The UK has firmly contributed to this conflict right from the start. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK sold over £6.5 billion worth of arms to the Saudi coalition. It continues to do so. In fact, the true figure of arms sales will be much higher, with many arms being sold in secret. It was no surprise that the Court of Appeal ruled that the arms sales were unlawful under humanitarian law in 2019. And in its characteristically careless style, the UK government breached this court order three times by continuing to sell arms. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Government then declared in 2020 that their arms exports didn’t pose a threat to humanitarian law, and resumed arms exports to the Saudi coalition. The bombing campaign, facilitated by British weapons, has left two-thirds of the Yemeni population in need of aid, with 2 million children malnourished.
Apart from its arms exports, the UK government is linked to Yemen in another way: aid. Aid has been a vital lifeline to millions of civilians suffering from the persistent bombing. The UK has been one of the highest aid donors to Yemen since the conflict. It’s important to note that aid has in no way made up for the arms sales; the value of UK arms sales to the Saudi side is at least 6.5 times its aid contributions. However, aid has undoubtedly helped, given high levels of malnourishment and homelessness. Last year, the government pledged £164m in aid to Yemen. But earlier this month it almost halved this figure to £87m, citing the impact of the pandemic on the economy. By cutting aid and continuing arms exports, the Government has shown that it’s willing to put profit over lives in a war. It’s clear that this decision will be ruinous for Yemen, but it’s no longer surprising from a government that has shown complete disregard for the Yemeni people.
When compared to the USA, the UK government’s behaviour looks even worse. President Biden recently ended all support to the Saudi offensive, including arms sales, in a major policy shift. Biden also announced a further £137m (approximately) in aid to Yemen. The UK, meanwhile, has consistently cut aid to Yemen year-on-year since 2017. While Biden promises moral leadership, the UK government continues its immoral stance.
The UK’s aid cuts to Yemen are part of broader cuts to multiple war-torn countries. Aid to Syria could fall by 67%; to Somalia by 60%, and to Nigeria by 58%. Each of these cuts will be removing a lifeline to millions of innocent civilians suffering from conflict, while the UK prioritises cutting its budget deficit.
At a time when COVID-19 continues to ravage third-world countries, this ruthless ‘me-first’ attitude causes even more misery. Indeed, while the UK has ordered over 400 million vaccine doses for a population of 66 million, Yemen’s healthcare system has collapsed, with no hope of coping with the coronavirus pandemic. The government has unapologetically hoarded vaccine stocks, at the expense of poor and war-torn countries. Even though the UK government has promised to donate most of its excess vaccine stocks to poorer countries, it would only do this once its entire population has been vaccinated. Some 130 countries haven’t vaccinated a single person. Vaccines must be donated immediately; frontline workers in these countries are risking their lives during COVID-19, while this Government puts its own citizens first. Yemen will be one of the countries to suffer from the UK government’s monopolistic decisions during this pandemic, but one among many.
Since the start of the Yemen conflict, the UK government has been a silent perpetrator of violence and destruction in the region. Over the past few years, Brexit and the coronavirus response have dominated news headlines and revealed this Government’s incompetence. But the Government’s treatment of Yemen goes under the radar, despite a multitude of mistakes and humanitarian violations. Yemen has been the UK’s worst foreign policy disaster in years. Even now, British planes, flown by British-trained pilots, drop British bombs over Yemen. As long as this conflict rages on, Britain can no longer call itself a force for good in the world.