This year Boris Johnson said: “Together we should make clear our abhorrence of the regimes’ tactic of starve or surrender.”
He was talking about Syria. But when it comes to Yemen, where siege and starvation are in full force with British military and diplomatic support, he doesn’t talk like this.
There are important differences between the crises in the two countries, including the scale of the killing. Yet there are also many similarities that represent uncomfortable truths for Britain’s diplomats.
In both cases, a government with little domestic legitimacy survives because international law, embodied in the UN Security Council, grants it sovereignty, and because foreign powers provide it with the means to visit massive violence and starvation upon its own population. In both cases, while all parties to the conflict undoubtedly commit war crimes, those carried out by the sovereign state are by far the most extensive and deadly. In both cases, those crimes are perpetrated under the banner of the fight against terrorism, and against foreign intervention, both of which are in reality more limited than the rhetoric suggests.
Yet Britain refuses to acknowledge that the strangulation of northern Yemen is indeed a blockade, contradicting leading humanitarian actors and the manifest evidence of the diseased, skeletal children whose images too infrequently make news.
It is not that imports are totally impossible – although they were made so for 19 days this month. More commonly, the Saudi blockade works by making imports so time-consuming, difficult and expensive that Yemenis impoverished by war cannot afford to eat, and the resources of humanitarian organisations are drained. Commercial food imports and fuel, a necessity for hospital generators, are still banned.
Britain colludes in two lies which enable the blockade, and the war of which it is a part.
The first is that the coalition is defending the legitimate political order of Yemen.
The man who the UN recognises to be the president of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, was elected for a two-year term in 2012 in an uncontested election. He was supposed to preside over the creation of a new, inclusive political settlement, but botched it, and sparked the current crisis. Now he squats in a palace in Riyadh, issuing ineffectual proclamations to a country where few listen.
It is not clear that he is allowed to leave Riyadh, and even if he was, he certainly could not enter his own country safely. Most of the southern part, that not under control of the forces that ousted him in 2015, is controlled by forces who take their pay and orders from the UAE, which has made an alliance against him with local secessionists.
When the Saudi authorities obstruct humanitarian flights and shipments to North Yemen, they do so on the basis of the legal authority granted by the UN Security Council to this man.
Britain is not only one of five permanent members of the Security Council but the “penholder” on Yemen, meaning that it holds the responsibility to bring any future resolution.
The second lie is that its blockade of northern Yemen is motivated by the legitimate need to prevent the smuggling of Iranian arms to Houthi rebels.
Iran does support the Houthis, but the Houthis are not reliant on their support and are motivated by domestic concerns. The UN group of experts on Yemen has “not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms” from Iran to the Houthis, and no evidence that a missile recently lobbed ineffectually toward Riyadh was smuggled in by Iran. It was likely imported before the war from North Korea.
The recent total closure blocked access even to UN flights; clear evidence that it was not motivated by weapon smuggling. The true objective is simple: to deploy the Assad playbook from Syria: siege, starve, surrender – and to hell with the civilian population.
Britain angrily denounced this tactic when it was carried out by our established enemies, and when our words made no difference. But when our allies are culpable for those same actions, we offer only “deep concern”.
It makes Britain a hypocrite. And what’s worse, a hypocrite motivated by greed.
Three days after Saudi Arabia escalated its blockade on Yemen on 6 November, the Government offered a $2bn loan guarantee to Saudi’s national oil company if it chooses to make its initial public offering on the London stock exchange, a boon for brokers there. It would likely be the largest such guarantee in history.
The value of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia grew 500 per cent over the first two years of the war to more than £4.6bn. Former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons last month that "criticism of Saudi Arabia in this Parliament is not helpful" for further sales. So there is little doubt that commercial considerations impact what the Government is willing to say and do when it comes to Yemen.
For as long as the UK economy is based too narrowly on financial services, and its manufacturing export industry on arms, our politics will be vulnerable to this sort of bribery. Only massive investment to diversify our economy can excise this vulnerability permanently.
In the meantime, what is needed is courage. Rejecting the bribery of arms sales is only part of the story.
In Syria, Britain and the EU funded journalists and civil society, amongst others, to document a conflict which international media couldn’t reach, often producing powerful video footage that swayed public opinion. In Yemen there is no similar provision. This should change immediately: images need to begin making their way out of the country on a massive scale to circumvent the Saudi prohibition on international journalists.
Britain also needs to campaign, both in public and private, for a new Security Council resolution on Yemen. Such resolution must recognise that President Hadi is no longer bear of legitimate authority and a neither he nor his foreign backers have a right to obstruct entry to northern Yemen. Calling for peace or a political solution isn’t enough whilst the international community provides one side with a political advantage, and hence the incentive to keep on fighting, even as front lines remain static.
As long as the blockade and bombardment continues under Britain’s diplomatic cover, this country remains not merely a self-interested hypocrite, but an accomplice to the slow starvation of a nation.
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