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Yemen conflict: Does the UK have blood on its hands?

In April 2013 David Cameron welcomed the UN’s adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty, heralding it as a 'landmark agreement that will save lives and ease the immense human suffering caused by armed conflict around the world.'

Two years later the Saudi Arabian-led coalition began its aerial bombardment of Houthi rebel controlled areas of Yemen. The continuous, indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes have rained down on the country for six months, killing hundreds and injuring hundreds more, with ongoing replenishments of British weaponry.

Alzahra School derelict and empty after an airstrike 6 weeks ago #Saada #YemenCrisis

— Rasha Mohamed (@RashaMoh2) July 3, 2015

Along with other human rights organisations, we have been warning the government for months that the coalition has been committing war crimes – but their response has been pitiful. Instead of investigating the alleged crimes, or better yet suspending arms sales until they can be sure certain UK weapons won’t be used to indiscriminately attack civilians, the government is accepting the ‘assurances’ of Saudi Arabia as reason enough to keep giving them weapons. These ‘assurances’ hardly seem credible when Saudi Arabia blocked a UN resolution for an independent investigation into war crimes in Yemen.

Finally, the Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond admitted during a Newsnight interview that Saudi Arabian assurances alone would not be enough to prove breaches of international law had not occurred. Instead, there will be an investigation into the reported breaches… by Saudi Arabia. Allowing the accused to investigate their alleged crimes is certainly a novel and potentially cost-saving idea, but it is not the approach of a government that is committed to easing the human suffering caused by armed conflict around the world.

UK is breaking its own laws

The UK government is turning a blind eye to its complicity in civilian casualties and deaths in Yemen. It continues to dismiss multiple and consistent reports of hospitals destroyed, markets flattened, cluster bombs scattering effective landmines as insufficient to prove the Saudi-led coalition is not taking the necessary steps to protect civilian life.

The government stubbornly argues it is in the right, and not until irreproachable proof of a breach of international humanitarian law lands in its lap will it stop its transfer of arms. But this is not the principle of the Arms Trade Treaty. The Treaty exists to prevent such breaches happening, to protect civilian life in conflict. Countries signed up to the treaty must assess the risk of a breach, the potential that arms could be used indiscriminately. This risk and this potential is evident, and the UK has offered no reasoning as to why it believes otherwise.

Ground fighting between Huthi and Governmental forces does not distinguish between military targets, and homes and hospitals. Air strikes have pummelled neighbourhoods despite there being no hint of Huthi rebel presence. On 9 July, an airstrike bombed a school north of Aden, when a dozen families displaced by the conflict were sheltering. Ten members of the Faraa family, including four children and five women, were killed.

British-made bombs attacking civilians

This is not a conflict to which the UK can stand back and claim its hands are clean. The Saudi Arabian coalition is using our weaponry and our technology to attack civilians. The UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one, but no political relationship justifies the death of a Yemeni person caused by a British manufactured bomb. The UK’s safety and trade must not be built on the deaths of innocent people in a country and a conflict we would rather ignore.

#Saudi Coalition used #UK cruise missile in unlawful airstrike against a factory in #Yemen

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) November 26, 2015

The UK was a leader in bringing about the Arms Trade Treaty. But its conduct in the Yemen conflict is undermining its good work and its reputation. It is indefensible to argue that we should only stop providing a country with arms when it has confessed to breaches of international humanitarian law. The UK cannot pick and choose when the law applies – it must apply to everyone, friend and foe alike.

The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister – in fact, the entire UK government – signed up to the Arms Trade Treaty only two years ago. It is time for them to stick to their word.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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