Britain’s armed forces have an enviable reputation – we should not cheapen it by playing wargames with the Saudis

As a leading military power that upholds the very highest standards, we should only be partnering with countries which share our commitment to human rights

Nia Griffith
Saturday 02 February 2019 12:33 GMT
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The UK has an important opportunity to use its leverage with international partners
The UK has an important opportunity to use its leverage with international partners (AFP/Getty)

Our armed forces are known around the world for their skills and their professionalism.

Whether they are combating piracy off the coast of Somalia, building hospitals to fight the Ebola epidemic, or freeing civilians from the tyranny of Isis, UK servicemen and women make a crucial contribution to global peace and security.

On many operations, they work side by side with personnel from other nations, pooling their specialisms and equipment to deliver multinational missions effectively.

Of course this requires regular opportunities for joint exercises and training, giving our service personnel the practical experience of serving alongside other militaries and learning valuable lessons to apply in the field.

But as a leading military power that upholds the very highest standards, we should only be partnering with countries who share our commitment to protecting human rights and the rule of law.

And yet next week, the UK will carry out joint military exercises with Saudi Arabia, a state that flouts international norms with impunity and whose government has a total disregard for basic rights and freedoms.

The Saudi military is currently embroiled in the devastating war in Yemen – a conflict which has led to mass civilian casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe on an appalling scale.

There are credible allegations that both sides in the fighting – the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition – have broken international humanitarian law. Thousands of civilians have been killed and the UN has attributed the bulk of the deaths and injuries to the Saudi coalition. As my colleague Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, has written, evidence from Save the Children has shown the Saudi regime is disgracefully using starvation as a weapon of war.

It is a source of deep shame that UK-made weapons and equipment could be used in this arena. That is why Labour has called for an immediate arms embargo to ensure that we do not export anything to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the Yemen war, pending a comprehensive, independent investigation of those alleged war crimes.

Our own government has repeatedly ignored these calls and refused to follow the example of allies such as Germany who have suspended their sales. Even the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi did nothing to change the Conservatives’ policy of appeasing the Riyadh regime. Nor have the widespread reports of torture or the mistreatment of detainees led to a change of heart.

And so instead of taking a stand against their conduct, the UK government has in fact planned a two-week military exercise with Saudi next month, as well as the five-day naval drill next week.

It simply beggars belief that we would even consider a joint exercise with the very same Saudi Navy which blockades key ports in Yemen, thereby exacerbating the starvation and suffering of the Yemeni people. But for our government, it is business as usual.

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To go ahead with these exercises not only represents a complete abdication of this country’s moral responsibility, it also reveals a bleak, pessimistic view of Britain’s place in the world.

As a top tier military and diplomatic power, the UK has an opportunity to use its leverage with international partners, an opportunity which should not be understated nor ignored.

Instead of happily going along with Saudi and its abhorrent regime, we should be using our diplomatic clout to push for a lasting peace in Yemen and an immediate investigation into allegations of war crimes. Until then, all future military exercises should be suspended without delay.

Nia Griffith is a Labour MP and shadow defence secretary

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