Twenty children have been killed in Yemen since the UK government resumed arms sales to Saudi Arabia just over one month ago.
We reported in July that Liz Truss MP, secretary of state for international trade, announced that weaponry sales to Saudi Arabia would resume despite concerns over the potential for further atrocities in Yemen.
A coalition of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates has been accused of scores of war crimes in Yemen including airstrikes on schools, hospitals, weddings and offices. More than 20,000 civilians have been killed since March 2015.
The latest child deaths continue an escalation in violence this year, with civilian casualties trebling from May to June, according to the Yemen Data Project.
Amid concerns over the scale of civilian deaths, UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia were halted in June 2019 after the Court of Appeal ruled they were unlawful. Weapons sold to Saudi Arabia include Paveway IV bombs made in Fife by a US arms firm called Raytheon.
The government agreed then to conduct a review but last month resumed selling bombs after saying that while some “credible incidents of concern” related to Saudi forces’ conduct the UK government viewed these as “isolated incidents”.
Critics condemned that decision as “disgraceful and morally bankrupt”. They have now reacted angrily to reports that 20 children died in air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition in the month since Truss announced UK arms deals would restart.
It was reported on 16 July that at least 12 people, including four women and five children, were killed in the city of Al-Hazm, about 70 miles northeast of the capital Sanaa.
This followed an air strike on 12 July when seven children and two women were reportedly killed in an air raid in the northwest province of Hajjah, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
On the 6 August, Belqis Channel reported that 15 civilians were killed in a coalition raid in the Khub and Al Shagaf district in Al-Jawf governorate. The raid targeted a residential community of the Maatara tribe in the Khashm Harb region, which led to the death and injury of fifteen civilians, including eight children.
This attack meant that 20 children have been killed since Truss spoke at Westminster on 7 July.
Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) described the child death toll as “appalling”. He said it exposes the “callous disregard that the Saudi Arabian regime shows for the rights and lives of people in Yemen”.
“The longer the war continues the more people will be killed. The reality is that this brutal bombardment is only possible because of the complicity and support of arms dealing governments like the UK,” Smith added.
“When the government resumed arms sales to Saudi Arabia it claimed that there was no risk of those weapons being used in violation of international humanitarian law. Yet the bombardment, and the scale of the crisis are getting even worse. Liz Truss and her colleagues know this, but that hasn’t been enough to stop them from prioritising arms company profits.”
Lawyers representing CAAT wrote to the UK government last week seeking urgent answers on its decision to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia. CAAT is considering further legal action, having taken the UK government to court previously over its arms sales to the Saudis.
Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer said: “Amid food shortages and a complete breakdown of the economy in Yemen, children are being massacred and war crimes have undoubtedly been committed by both sides.
“Despite this, the UK Government’s desperation to cash in and support one of their favourite regimes has meant no halt to arms sales to the Saudis, even when Tory ministers acknowledge that war crimes may indeed have been committed.
Greer also criticised the Scottish Government for giving grants to Raytheon through its business agency, Scottish Enterprise. He said: “We know some of the weapons sold to Saudi Arabia are made in Scotland.
“The UK Government may be utterly complicit in these atrocities but the Scottish Government can’t pretend their hands are clean either.”
The Scottish Government has repeatedly said it does not provide funding for the manufacture of munitions either directly or via Scottish Enterprise, and that arms exports are the responsibility of the UK Government.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.”
Six days after Truss said UK arms sales to the Saudis would resume it emerged that the Ministry of Defence had logged more than 500 Saudi air raids in possible breach of international law in Yemen.
Following a written question from the Labour MP Zarah Sultana, the defence minister, James Heappey, replied: “As at 4 July, the number of alleged instances of breaches or violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Yemen listed on the ‘Tracker’ database maintained by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) is 535.”
All parties to Yemen’s war have committed war crimes, according to the UN, which said the US, Britain, France and Iran could be complicit in abuses by providing intelligence and logistics support, and by making arms transfers that were of “questionable legitimacy”.
In the first six months of 2020, there was a 139 per cent increase in bombing rates by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition, compared to the last six months of 2019, according to Yemen Data Project.
The escalation in violence in recent weeks came after the UN Secretary-General failed to list the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition in their Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict, for all the grave violations the coalition committed against children in Yemen in 2019.
Photo thanks to Fahd Sadi, CC BY-SA 3.0