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British weapons, cholera and Yemen

The High Court ruled in July that Britain’s £3.5bn arms sales to Saudi Arabia is lawful, as whilst Saudi bombing of Yemen ‘probably’ breaches international law, it’s for the government to decide whether it truly does. The government say there’s no clear risk that UK licensed items might be used to commit serious humanitarian law violations. Clearly we’re doing nothing wrong. So who are the bad guys?

About half the planes bombing Yemen are British-made (the Kingdom owns more British-made warplanes than the RAF). Yemen monitors say a third of the 9000 airstrikes have hit civilian targets, including schools, hospitals, weddings and markets. British bomb remnants have turned up repeatedly, and Roy Isbister of Saferworld commented at Chatham House in February that other peoples’ weapons don’t fit British aircraft. It’s fine, though, British bombs avoid schools, as the Saudis declare most targets Al Qaeda bases (afterwards).

Despite all this overwhelming certainty that nothing humanitarian is being violated anywhere, a biblical tragedy is now unfolding. As Sunni President Hadi and the Shia Houthis battle (violently) to rule (benevolently), Yemen’s 27 million people, who normally import 90% of their food, are blockaded by land and sea. The Saudis explain the port was bombed for their own good, as weapons were getting into the country with the food (despite clearly being more effective when dropped onto the country from the sky). 21 million people now need humanitarian aid. 7 million are starving, including 2 million small children. Since April 350,000 have caught cholera, an utterly appalling, preventable plague that drains the life from people with grim indignity. Cholera thrives only because sanitation and clean water systems have been obliterated by bombs that don’t breach international humanitarian law.

The UN blames the Yemeni combatants, the Saudis and their international backers for the epidemic. The Saudis insist they’re the blameless guys because they only bomb Al Qaeda, and because President Hadi won 99.8% of the last vote (he was the only candidate). The US give suspects’ names to Yemeni forces, who reportedly detain and question them with a Yemeni special, toasting on metal spits, before passing information back. Good guys surely don’t condone cooking prisoners, but the Yemenis insist reports are ‘exaggerated’, which the US say is clearly true because there are no bad guys here. The US can’t be bad guys though, they are just big guys, having sold $100bn of arms to Saudi Arabia under Obama. On May 21st Trump announced $100bn more, adding, “we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be,” in case anyone thought he might have any moral standards for them to aspire to.

We, though, are influential guys. During a BBC election debate in May, Amber Rudd claimed we can influence Saudi Arabia by ‘engaging’ on (arms) trade, and that we need a strong arms industry for our own defence. The doctor, who bizarrely thought we had to keep weapons rather than sell them, for that to work, was greatly relieved. After all, if we weren’t all such good guys, with such influence on our Saudi friends, those weapons could easily have targeted innocent Yemenis in a cynical war of attrition.

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