No Way: UK Government Shows Double Standards Over Yemen Bombing

The International Development Minister was asked ten times if Britain will stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, but never really answered.

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25 April 2018, 4:31pm

Royal Air Force Eurofighter EF-2000 Typhoon FGR4 arriving runway 31 in the late evening sun. (Gordon Zammit / Alamy Stock Photo)

"What more can this country and others do to make sure that medicines and nutrition get to the people who need them?" asked Pauline Latham MP (Conservative, Mid Derbyshire) at Tuesday's debate in Parliament about the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.

Pauline presumably spends a lot of time scratching her head, baffled at how so many of Yemen's hospitals seem to have been mysteriously flattened since the conflict begun. But the answer is simple: Saudi Arabia's indiscriminate bombing of the country.

This parliamentary debate followed the most recent atrocity in Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen: the bombing of a wedding, which killed at least 20 people, including the bride, on Monday.

A third of Saudi's 17,000 air-strikes have hit non-military targets, and so it was up to International Development Minister Harriet Baldwin to falteringly deliver dead-behind-the-eyes non-responses to questions about Britain’s ongoing weapons sales to Saudi, and try to talk up Britain’s humanitarian work in the region.

The conflict – which has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – is the cause of a humanitarian catastrophe, including the worst cholera outbreak in human history and the largest diphtheria outbreak since 1989. Eight million people are on the brink of starvation.

Fortunately, Britain is on the case, giving £170 million in aid to Yemen this year. It would take a real cynic to imagine that this humanitarian effort will be in any way completely and totally undermined by the £5 billion deal the UK signed to sell 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia in March. That's on top of the £4.6 billion worth of arms sales from the UK to Saudi since the conflict began.

The opposition MPs who suggested the obvious were talking to a brick wall. Ten times the minister was asked if Britain would suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and ten times she didn’t really answer the question. At best she cited "rigorous" export controls which allow us to keep rolling in blood money. Otherwise, she flim-flammed, deflected and talked about something else.

However, the minister was happy to confirm that the UK "is trying to prevent access for the missiles that are being used to shoot from Yemeni territory into Saudi Arabia, risking the lives of civilians within Saudi Arabia as well". As an isolated comment this was meant to signal Britain’s status as a peace-maker, stopping the conflict escalating. In the context, it just confirmed the fact that Britain has picked a side.

In trying to separate the humanitarian catastrophe and the war itself, Tory MPs kept on asking soft questions about the sticking plaster Britain is handing out as its Saudi ally hacks away at the conflict with a rusty axe.

"What plans does she have to ensure that there is a supply of clean water to people who are suffering so that the diseases are not spread and people are not forced to drink dirty water?" asked Bob Blackman (Conservative, Harrow East). A serious answer might mention stopping the indiscriminate Saudi bombing campaign which has devastated civilian infrastructure including water treatment facilities. But for Baldwin it was simply a task of ensuring that "the relevant water purification tablets find their way to people".

Pushed to actually defend selling bombs to Saudi, Baldwin didn’t, and instead took the opportunity to "emphasise how important it is that the Saudi-led coalition publishes the Joint Investigative Assessment Team’s reports, and to welcome the fact that 55 reports have been published so far".

Investigations by the Joint Incidents Assessment Team has led to such classic headlines as "Saudi coalition investigates own air strikes, clears itself". Following the bombing of Abs Hospital, in Yemen's Hajjah governorate, in 2016, JIAT dismissed the carnage as an "unintentional error". It referred to seven fatalities, while Medecins Sans Frontiers says there were in fact 19.

Special awards for services to the House of Saud go to MPs Philip Hollobone (Conservative, Kettering) and John Woodcock (Labour, Barrow and Furness). They both asked questions blaming the conflict on the Yemeni Houthi insurgency and the pernicious influence of Iran. Funnily enough, they also both recently went on "fact finding" trips to Saudi Arabia, to be feted by the regime. These contributions were only really notable for how nakedly they pushed a pro-Saudi line. A softer version is the government’s position.

So, why are we even bothering to send aid to rebuild a country our bombs will continue to destroy? It’s tempting to see it all as a bizarre contradiction, but Britain’s interests in the Gulf involve supporting Saudi Arabia at seemingly any cost. If that involves making billions out of weapons contracts that end up obliterating weddings, so be it. We can always whitewash it with a £100 million drop-in-the-ocean aid partnership.

Only last week, Theresa May was asking us to think of the children as she justified Britain’s involvement in air strikes on Assad’s chemical facilities in Syria. This week, it was different children, and a different set of geo-political priorities.

@SimonChilds13