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Daniel Wickham

Corbyn's peace narrative could expose British involvement in Yemen

Corbyn has been vocal about his opposition to the UK arms industry [Getty]

Date of publication: 16 September, 2015

Comment: Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the Labour leadership election provides an opportunity for a serious debate about arms exports to Saudi Arabia and Britain's involvement in Yemen, writes Daniel Wickham.
Unlike many other left-wing critics of British foreign policy, in particular vis-à-vis the Arab world, I did not - and could not - endorse Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

Despite our many points of agreement, too many of his views - such as his bizarre comments on the use of chemical weapons in Syria - were just too problematic for me to ignore.

That being said, part of me is pleased that a politician with a stellar record of opposition to arms sales to human rights violating governments in the Middle East is now the leader of the opposition.

His landslide victory in the Labour leadership election on Saturday could ignite a real debate on this issue, which, until now, is something mainstream British politics has sorely lacked.

Whether or not Corbyn will have any impact on policy remains to be seen, but his election nonetheless presents an unprecedented opportunity for the opposition to shed light on the moral implications and human cost of the British arms industry's dealings in the Middle East.

It may also strengthen the impact of important grassroots organisations such as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which, one would hope, have a reliable ally in Corbyn.

Right now, the most pressing issue with regard to arms sales is Yemen.

According to Oxfam, the British government has been fuelling the conflict by providing arms for the Saudi-led coalition's bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels, who overran the capital, Sanaa, in September last year.

Foreign Minister Philip Hammond says Britain is supporting the operation "in every practical way short of engaging in combat", which includes replenishing the Saudi air force's weapons stock with "precision-guided" missiles earmarked for the RAF.
     Right now, the most pressing issue with regard to arms sales is Yemen


British-made Tornado GR4 ground attack fighters and Eurofighter Typhoons are also said to be playing a central role in the campaign.

The New York Times reports that more than a thousand civilians are believed to have been killed in coalition airstrikes since the operation began in March. Amnesty International has accused both sides in the conflict of violating international humanitarian law and showing "a ruthless and wanton disregard for the safety of civilians", in some cases committing war crimes.

Civilian areas have been routinely attacked by the coalition, including markets, schools, homes and even a camp for the internally displaced.

The Saudis and their allies have also imposed a crippling naval blockade which the head of aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres says may be responsible for killing as many Yemenis as the conflict itself.

According to Human Rights Watch, the blockade "may amount to starvation of civilians as a weapon of warfare", which is a war crime under international law.

Read Richard Brooks' commentary here: Corruption remains the cornerstone of UK-Saudi relations 


In total, there are now 21 million people in Yemen in need of urgent humanitarian assistance - more than anywhere in the world, including Syria. Mark Raye from the British charity Save The Children warns if we don’t act soon, thousands of children will die from hunger-related causes by the end of the year.

Remarkably, none of this was enough to dissuade Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski from defending the Saudi-led military campaign on the BBC programme Newsnight last week.

Like the Saudi government, he refuses to acknowledge that breaches of international humanitarian law have taken place and maintains that the coalition is doing "everything possible to limit civilian casualties".

It may be easy to disregard Kawczynski, an MP with a record of apologising for the Saudi monarchy, but it is important to remember that his defence of the Saudi operation in Yemen is in many ways a reflection of government policy.
     If it is found that UK-supplied weapons were sold or used unlawfully, the government must be held to account


Whatever concerns it claims to have about the costs to civilian life, the British government continues to be a supporter - and enabler - of this war, and is likely to remain so unless it is publicly and forcefully challenged.

This is where Corbyn's strong stance on arms sales could prove important.

As leader of the opposition, Corbyn should call on the government to implement in full the recommendations laid out by Oxfam in their new report - namely, to suspend arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, investigate the possible use of UK-supplied weapons in attacks that breached international humanitarian law, make every possible diplomatic effort to bring the war to an end, and push for humanitarian supplies to enter Yemen.

The government should also investigate whether defence exports to Saudi Arabia violated domestic and international law prohibiting arms sales where there is a clear risk they will be used to commit war crimes.

If it is found that UK-supplied weapons were sold or used unlawfully, the government must be held to account.

Corbyn's election brings many uncertainties, but it also provides a real opportunity for him to press the government on this issue. He should take it.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.
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