By Alys Hewitt
Britain has an extensive history of involvement – both direct and distant – in overseas conflicts, and whether or not this involvement is just or necessary is a polarising topic, inherently entangled with notions of morality.
New research by the Yemen Data Project, which aims to promote transparency and accountability surrounding the ongoing war in Yemen through its data collection, has revealed that a Saudi Arabian-led bombing campaign in the country, supported and upheld by arms dealings primarily with the UK, US and France, has killed over 8,000 civilians in the four years since bombing began. This is alongside the mass malnourishment, disease and starvation that has swept the country and its civilian population. Whilst the UK has not demonstrated direct intervention in Yemen, the government’s trading practices, so far removed from the reality of the conflict, have had a tangible human cost.
It is, I believe, immoral by default to enable and be directly complicit in the deaths of thousands of civilians, whether that be within or outside of your own country’s borders. Licensing weapons to one side or the other should not be prioritised over working with international organisations and other governments to pursue long-term and effective peace processes. It is also a strategy that is being viewed with increasing distaste in the political sphere, with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid and the Green Party all calling for the suspension of these arms sales. Other Western countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have taken action and suspended their own arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and there is even growing sentiment amongst lawmakers in the US to end the country’s own support.
The government’s actions, in refusing to halt their backing of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, appear to be increasingly out-of-touch and preoccupied with profit over humanity. They have taken a decidedly defensive stance, with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt claiming in a recent article that selling arms strengthens the strategic position of Britain in the conflict, and that to stop these sales would be ‘morally bankrupt’, leaving the people of Yemen as the ‘biggest losers’ and the UK as ‘irrelevant to the course of events in Yemen’. Yet there is no reason why the government could not champion peace from an outside perspective – that way, too, there would be no guilty conscience looming over them. Stripping away the potential economic, political or strategic incentives for the continuation of arms sales leaves us with the stark fact that the UK is continually allowing these innocent deaths and human rights abuses to happen, when they do not have to, and when there are active forces pushing against it. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the £4.7 billion’s worth of weapon sales to Saudi Arabia far exceeds the amount of aid being sent to Yemen – how, then, can the UK’s actions possibly be justified in humanitarian or moral terms?
Aside from a few critical voices, the media has also been somewhat silent on the subject of Yemen so far, largely ignoring the involvement of the UK and other Western countries. This has a knock-on effect, depriving the public of the opportunity to hold our government to account. If the press provided us with a clearer and more accurate picture of events, rooted in context, this would increase the demand for transparency and culpability, and perhaps bring about more sustained pressure on the government to reconsider their current complicity in Yemen. Something must be done about the indifference to suffering shown by those in power, and admitting responsibility is the first step.