More than 100,000 people have died in the war in Yemen since March 2015, including over 12,000 civilians killed in direct attacks. All parties to the war have committed violations of international law, but the Saudi-led coalition—armed and supported militarily and diplomatically by the United States and the United Kingdom primarily—is responsible for the highest number of these reported civilian deaths. In addition, the coalition aerial and naval blockade have contributed to politically-induced famine in which three quarters of the population of 28 million are experiencing food insecurity. Of those, 8.4 million people are wholly dependent on food aid to survive. Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death as a result of the war. And one million people are suffering from cholera – the worst outbreak since 1949, when modern records began. The latest report of the UN ‘s Group of Eminent Experts stated that people in the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab United Arab Emirates, as well as Houthi leaders, may be individually criminally liable for war crimes, and that arms-supplying states, including the UK, may be legally responsible as well.
The UK – alongside the United States – provides weapons, engineering, and logistical services, and military, intelligence and diplomatic support to the Saudi-led coalition. Without this support, the coalition could not carry out the war. Yet the UK also claims not to be party to the war, and regularly boasts that it operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. UK arms export policy is clear: the government will not issue arms export licences where there is a clear risk the weapons might be used in serious violations of international humanitarian law. The UK is also a major bilateral aid donor to Yemen. It’s the fourth largest donor to the UN Humanitarian Appeal for Yemen after Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait – all members of the coalition currently pummelling Yemen to within an inch of its life.
How are we to make sense of these seemingly competing and contradictory claims? How can the UK government claim not to be involved in the war while materially facilitating it? How can it claim to uphold international law while promoting arms sales that actively undermine it? The government is not simply ignoring its commitments to international law. It is not the case that the government is merely failing to implement its own rules that require a risk assessment to check whether arms exports might contribute to serious human rights or humanitarian law violations. Instead, something more complicated is going on: rather than assessing risk in order to prevent harm, the government is actively mobilising risk in order to facilitate and legitimise arms exports. It does this in three main ways.
First, through an active strategy of not knowing about violations of international law. Without knowing that there have been breaches of international humanitarian law, the UK government deems the risk of future violations not to be clear. Hence there is no need to refuse arms exports. Second, through claims of unintended harm: the UK government claims that if excessive civilian harm does seem to have happened, it must have been accidental – a strategy to mitigate the demands of international law and manage the reputation of a friendly state, Saudi Arabia. And third, state actors mobilise a temporal claim that even if there have been violations of international law in the past, the risk of future harm is not clear.
Overall, the effect of these practices is to make negotiable the limits of what is deemed legally and normatively permissible. In short, the UK government is making risk not matter, so that it can continue to sell weapons to the Saudi-led coalition while claiming to be on the right side of international law and of history.
Featured image credit: Image by David Mark from Pixabay.