In December 2016, Saudi Arabia admitted that cluster bombs used in its campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen were manufactured by the UK. The UK is a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty adopted in 2008 prohibiting the development, use, stockpiling or transfer of all cluster munitions, due to evidence that the weapons disproportionately “kill or maim civilians.” On October 26, 2016, a Labor Party call for the UK to cut support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen was rejected. As reported in The Guardian, the demand for withdrawal of support was defeated by 283 to 193, “suggesting that scores of Labor MPs did not vote,” likely due to feared backlash from unions with strong ties to the defense industry. Following the Saudis’ admission to using the UK-made bombs, Prime Minister Theresa May is being pressured by the Labor Party’s Jeremy Corbyn as to why the UK did not admit to supplying the coalition with cluster bombs earlier. The coalition has been accused of committing genocide against the Yemeni people. As mass starvation and deaths increase in Yemen, the US and UK, two of the Saudi-led coalition’s primary backers, ought to cease violations of international law and halt support for the coalition.
The Yemeni civil war has been deemed the “forgotten war,” overshadowed in Western media by the Syrian crisis. The situation on the ground is bleak — the death toll has exceeded 10,000 people since the war’s outbreak in 2015. UNICEF estimates that 2.2 million children require urgent humanitarian assistance to prevent potentially fatal malnutrition, and a cholera outbreak has worsened the health crisis in the country. Over 3 million Yemenis are displaced.
Civilians in Yemen have borne the brunt of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, including one that took place during a funeral in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in early October 2016, killing at least 140 people and injuring at least 525 more, according to the UN. Several days after the strike, the Saudi-led coalition finally admitted responsibility, blaming “incorrect information” that somehow passed between coalition command and the air operations center in Yemen. Yemenis often “find the remnants of American-made bombs in the rubble of destroyed buildings,” fueling outrage amongst the already devastated civilian population. Families are forced to choose between using money to save one starving child on the brink of death by taking him to a hospital, or using the same money to buy food to keep their other healthier children alive, only to remain in a cycle of starvation and desperation no matter what they choose. As reported by The Associated Press, 19-year-old Mohammed Ali witnessed his two-year-old cousin die of hunger while his five-year-old brother rapidly wastes away. There are over 2.2 million children in similar positions. Breached ceasefires have disrupted the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Violations of international humanitarian law were cited by the UK Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry of the Labor Party as motivation to withdraw UK support for the coalition. A confidential UN report stated that all sides involved in the conflict, including the Saudi-led coalition, have committed blatant violations of international humanitarian law. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, firmly opposed to any limitations on UK support for the coalition, has roped a self-proclaimed commitment to humanitarian law into his argument in favor of continuing the bombardment of Yemen, claiming that by withdrawing support, the UK “would be vacating a space that would rapidly be filled by other western countries who would happily supply arms with nothing like the same compunctions or criteria or respect for humanitarian law.” Johnson insists that a “threshold” has not been crossed in Yemen and violations of international law have not occurred, despite evidence presented by a UN panel and organizations, such as Amnesty International UK, demonstrating precisely the opposite.
These passionate invocations and alleged commitments to international humanitarian law from figures on all ends of the UK political spectrum to defend their opposing stances are in stark contrast to the debate raging on international humanitarian law in the United States. Last spring, Donald Trump sparked outrage when he stated, “The problem is, we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so soldiers are afraid to fight” and argued that the US ought to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” What good, however, is an ostensible respect for humanitarian law when it is invoked by figures, such as Boris Johnson, simply to justify ongoing support for a careless and destructive coalition responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians?
Trump’s violent and concerning comments display a blatant disrespect for humanitarian law. Though he has claimed he wishes to pursue a noninterventionist approach when it comes to military involvement abroad, Trump’s erratic and extreme engagement with Iran, viewed by Saudi Arabia as a key backer of the Houthi rebels, could lead Trump to make decisions (come January 20, 2016) that further destabilize the situation. Though the Houthi rebels’ role extends far past that of “Iranian puppets,” Trump’s track record does not reflect an ability to consider the nuances of global diplomacy.
Furthermore, what value does the respect for humanitarian law invoked by figures, such as the UK shadow foreign secretary, have when this respect cannot be used to successfully rally her party to support ceasing assistance to a destructive and failing coalition? Though the Labor Party’s move to withdraw support for the coalition was promising, the nonparticipation of such a high number of Labor MPs is disappointing, and will now enable the reckless Saudi-led coalition to continue operations supported by the UK. Opposition to funding the Saudi-led coalition has also been supported in US Congress by representatives, such as Ted Lieu of California, who has called on Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately cease aid to Saudi forces, who, according to Lieu, are “intentionally targeting civilians or they are not distinguishing between civilians and military targets. Both would be war crimes.”
Given the nonresponse of US and UK governments to such humanitarian pleas, it seems that in contemporary political discourse, international humanitarian law is being viewed as a mere trope — a theatrical device deployed in the context of political arguments. This internationally binding body of law must instead be viewed as an enforceable reality that cannot be ignored when it gets in the way of the foreign policy interests of nations, such as the US or UK.
We must heed the calls of the thousands of Yemeni civilians who have staged protests against the coalition, and ensure that an independent UN investigation is allowed to move forward and is not further delayed by a Saudi-led investigation that has already been described as “unduly slow,” even by Boris Johnson’s foreign office deputy, Tobias Ellwood. The arguments of representatives, such as Ted Lieu, must be taken seriously. Public awareness of the civil war in Yemen must increase in order to reduce tolerance of stances taken by figures, such as Donald Trump, who seek to actively violate humanitarian law, as well as stances taken by the likes of Boris Johnson, who has claimed to have respect for humanitarian law through his words, but has shown blatant disregard for it through his actions.