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Sophia Akram

Yemen's whitewashed crisis

The Saudi Arabian army fires shells towards Yemen from close to the Saudi-Yemeni border [AFP]

Date of publication: 26 January, 2017

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Comment: Yemenis are starving in an aggressive war that shows no signs of resolve, but the UK continues to whitewash its weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, writes Sophia Akram.

Almost two years after Yemen was plunged into civil war, the conflict continues to rage. A Saudi-led collation has backed government forces that have not only engaged in a defensive attack, but a full-on war of aggression that has targeted Houthi rebels as well as civilians.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken advantage of the power vacuum, and furthermore profited from the turmoil that has gripped the country. This means more extremist violence, more drone strikes and ultimately, more chaos.

Starving Yemen

Earlier this month, the UN estimated that the death toll in Yemen had reached 10,000 but some believe it is actually a lot higher, notwithstanding those who die from associated causes like malnutrition.

Now, 82 percent of Yemenis are in humanitarian despair. Over 2 million people are internally displaced across 21 governorates and 7 to 10 million people are food insecure making it the biggest food security emergency in the world.

Households are struggling to make ends meet, markets are unable to function properly, and the lack of humanitarian access have all added to the worsening crisis. Importing food has become impossible, though 85 percent of Yemen's food is typically imported. Humanitarian organisations are now warning that Yemen is nearing famine and the country could run out of food in just a couple of months.

The UK has already made itself complicit in a series of alleged war crimes by actively refusing to suspend weapon sales, or use diplomatic leverage

The country's affected population could make this a humanitarian disaster on a greater scale than even Syria's. While the impact of the conflict in Syria should never be downplayed, in an ugly and relentless bombardment, those dying in Yemen are arguably suffering more slowly and less visibly.

Yemen's children have not escaped the suffering and UNICEF say that over 400,000 are at risk of complete starvation while nearly 2.2 million need urgent care. According to the UN agency, at least one child dies every 10 minutes because of malnutrition, diarrhoea and respiratory-tract infections.

And all this, because of a conflict involving the Saudi-led coalition, that the UK and US are enabling.

The UK's crime

The UK has a special relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, enjoying good trade ties; and Saudi Arabia is of course a key arms customer for the UK. There is no notable instance of the UK Government ever criticising Saudi Arabia and there is no chance of it starting now.

The UK has already made itself complicit in a series of alleged war crimes by actively refusing to suspend weapon sales, or use diplomatic leverage.

Andrew Mitchell, conservative MP and former International Development Secretary recently spoke out about the UK's role in Yemen's crisis. In his own words he said of Yemen’s malnourished population:

"They are not starving. 27 million people. They are being starved.

  Read More: Watchdog: 2017 famine warnings at 'unprecedented' levels

As a result of the blockade, by air, sea and land of this country, and we are in danger of being complicit in the destruction of a sovereign state and the starvation of very large numbers of people".

The UK is not only providing arms to Saudi Arabia, including cluster munitions that may have been used indiscriminately on Shia villages, but it is also helping to train the Saudi forces, while using its means to veil the abuses committed by its Gulf friends.

And despite calls for an independent panel to investigate whether UK arms are being used in those abuses, the government has instead decided to whitewash its reports.

A whitewash

On 10 January it was reported that the British military provided training to a Saudi war crimes investigations unit – the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT). While the fact that the investigations unit's Saudi leadership makes it ill-placed for a fair investigation, the Judge presiding over the panel, Colonel Mansour al-Mansour, was criticised himself over human rights abuses, completely discrediting the mechanism.

As the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy put it "It is farcical that the judge who condemned torture victims to life imprisonment in Bahrain is now in charge of investigating the murder of civilians in Yemen."

Media coverage of Yemen's civil war has been relegated to its simple humanitarian dimension, and the need for aid

This is the investigation the UK Government said it wanted to see happen before it deemed a UN investigation necessary. This was the response to a Parliamentary Committee, the Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), after it advised the UK Government to halt UK arms sales until the allegations could be investigated. The report's findings are based on an inquiry CAEC held on UK arms being used in Yemen.

The report actually initially recommended that all sales to Saudi Arabia were to be suspended immediately, if it was suspected they were being used against civilians. However, both Labour and Conservative MPs proposed amendments to water down the weight of the recommendations and essentially to allow the UK to continue trading until a UN investigation took place.

Seeing the Saudis conduct an internal investigation is perhaps just another delaying tactic.

Where is the media?

The UK government has always denied the evidence laid before it by human rights groups or the UN.

And what's more the media coverage of Yemen's conflict has waned, leading some to describe it as a hidden crisis. One might argue that those who want to control the narrative are suppressing coverage of the Yemen war.

Theresa May's government can facilitate this by equating Saudi's actions to "counter-terrorism" and aligning our national security interests to it. But even practically, the Yemeni government has restricted entry of foreign journalists. Its journalists are under constant threat and citizen journalism is waning due to increased electricity blackouts and the humanitarian crisis itself.

Media coverage of Yemen's civil war has been relegated to its simple humanitarian dimension, and the need for aid. To this end the UK is a leading donor, but politically it is fuelling the crisis and has failed in its responsibility to protect through active diplomatic engagement.

The weekend of 20 -23 January saw renewed fighting in the peninsula and more drone strikes. Peace is likely to be a long way off as Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Houthi rebel leader rejected the last UN roadmap. In the meantime Saudi Arabia may continue to impose its influence in the region by any means necessary and with zero accountability.


Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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