A UN document discussed here repeats what has been obvious for a long time, that we (the UK government — along with the US, led by our Saudi allies) are carrying out war crimes in Yemen, destroying the country, deliberately targeting food production, bombing water facilities, hospitals, funerals, markets and blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid, starving civilians.
All of this has been happening with our full and enthusiastic support, assistance that goes way beyond just selling them weapons.
The UN now describe the situation in Yemen as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. A UNICEF report tells us that “9.6 million children (80% of all the children in Yemen) need humanitarian assistance”, with the UN Secretary General stating that “We are witnessing the starving and the crippling of an entire generation”; and the World Food Programme now warning of the deaths of 150,000 malnourished children in the next few months. The current cholera outbreak, a direct result of this siege, approaches its millionth case and has been characterised as the worst and fastest spreading cholera epidemic in modern history.
The British government response to all of this is very revealing
In what may be seen as some parody of Orwell, the British Foreign Office tweeted a video that describes the UK as “leading the humanitarian response in Yemen” and “working with international partners to find a peaceful solution”. Both the tweet and the video neglect to mention that we are currently still bombing the country we appear to be offering charity to.
When the Yemen situation was debated in the House of Commons a few weeks ago, this is what the turnout looked like:
It took regular people on Twitter, not professional journalists or esteemed academics to ask the obvious question:
“Why is it that when there is a proposal to bomb a developing country to punish its leader the House of Commons is packed with humanitarian MPs thundering about duty and responsibility, but when there is a debate on a genocidal war that is making money for the UK, they vanish?”
Some might remember the debate about bombing Syria in 2015, during which the Commons was packed to the rafters, and journalists fell over themselves with gushing applause for Hilary Benn’s “inspiring” and “magical” pro-war speech:*
Why Don’t we Stop Selling them Arms?
Despite the confusing way the issue is presented in the media, this is not some impossibly complex dilemma for us without a clear way forward. If the UK government were really interested in doing something about ‘the worst humanitarian crisis in the world’, the first thing they could do is stop participating in it, and deny support to those carrying it out.
This might sound reasonable enough to those outside the Westminster bubble, but when Emily Thornberry put forward a motion to do exactly that — namely to suspend arms sales and support for the Saudi bombing campaign, “until it has been determined whether they have been responsible for violations [of international law]”, this was voted down by MPs and dismissed. 283 (mostly Conservative) MPs voted against it, alongside over a hundred Labour MPs who abstained from voting (mostly from the Blairite ‘centrist’ wing of the party). Since then, we have sold Saudi Arabia another £1.1 billion in weapons that are still being used today in Yemen, sales which have gone up 500% since the start of the Yemen war.
Boris Johnson explained his reasoning shortly after the vote, stating that “if we don’t sell arms to Saudi Arabia, someone else will”. We can imagine how far that reasoning would get us in court for any other crime (‘Sorry your honour, but if I wasn’t selling them heroin, someone else would be’, etc).
Defence Secretary (at the time) Michael Fallon’s view a few months ago was that criticism of the Saudi regime while we’re trying to sell them fighter jets is “unhelpful”:
“I’ve travelled to Saudi Arabia back in September and discussed progress on the deal with my opposite number, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia…
“I have to repeat sadly, to this committee, that obviously other criticism of Saudi Arabia, in this Parliament, is not helpful and …I’ll leave it there, but we need to do everything possible to encourage Saudi Arabia towards batch two.”
Months before this, Fallon admitted that internationally banned cluster bombs supplied by the UK had been used in Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign, bombs that Amnesty International reported were being used in attacks on civilians and had killed children.
Media Lens, in a terrific piece on this, notes that while sexual harassment (in the Michael Fallon case) is quite rightly seen as a sackable offence, other forms of ‘inappropriate behaviour’, such as support for and assistance with mass murder, are not even worthy of mention.
Meanwhile, ministers (including those who voted no on the Yemen motion), continue to lecture and inform us that “human rights are central to our foreign policy” — while being treated with reverence as insightful, respected voices by a media system that is largely complicit.
How are the mainstream media reporting on this?
A search of the BBC news website brings up plenty of features on Yemen, including a HardTalk interview, a Newsday discussion and several harrowing reports showing us the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding. Yet the way it is reported is interesting.
The suffering is typically attributed to things like: “worsening conditions” “fighting on the ground” “the ongoing violence”, “the situation” and other vague, sterile language that hides who is responsible. When perpetrators are identified, they are always described as “the Saudi-led coalition” or “Saudi-led campaign” without adding that our government and the US are a central part of that ‘coalition’. One example:
“Yemen is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe which the warring parties are making worse and which the outside world seems unwilling or unable to tackle”.
Who are the warring parties? Could they include us? Any viewer without knowing better would assume we have nothing to do with it.
Another BBC headline describes the crisis as “Yemen’s civil war”, as if the country is not being subjected to ongoing US/UK/Saudi bombardment; and another explains that “The country, the poorest in the Arab world, has been caught up in a two-year civil war between supporters of the President, backed by Saudi Arabia, and a rebel group, the Houthis, who are linked to Iran.” Or Thursday’s BBC News at Ten:
The possibility that we may share some responsibility for the crisis is not discussed, or apparently even contemplated.
Instead, the leading theme of coverage, discussion and blame is now pointed towards Iran, with laser-like focus (here and here for example) on the allegation that they have been arming rebels in Yemen. Historian Mark Curtis aptly tweeted in response:
“So, after nearly 3 years of basically concealing massive UK arms exports to Saudi, BBC puts front and centre US allegations of the same for Iran as soon as a US official makes the claim. It’s not even funny and we are paying for this trash.”
Some of the reporting, even from the left-leaning Guardian, absurdly tries to praise Saudi Arabia, one of the most savage dictatorships in the world, as a positive force of modernisation and reform in the region, currently on an “anti-corruption drive”.
Not to be outdone, the New York Times caught a wave of flak on social media for its (subsequently deleted) tweet:
“Are you fucking kidding me?” one Twitter user wrote; “Repeated bombings that just fell out of the sky or what?”
All of this tells us exactly what we need to know about our political class and the media outlets that are trusted to give us the news.
1. There is no western concern for issues of aggression, atrocities, human rights abuses, democracy, and so on — if there’s a profit to be made from it. Nothing could show that more clearly than this case.
2. War crimes, repression and other abuses are absolutely fine when they are committed by us or our allies.
Ian Sinclair concludes in his article:
“Western militaries have a vested interest in treating the public like mushrooms — keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit... However, the supposedly independent and fiercely critical media also play a central role in [this] — often not reporting, or minimising the significance of, much of the reality of the West’s interventions around the world”.
It is worth stressing that we can actually affect what’s going on in Yemen, much more so than other crises that our government pretends to care deeply about when it suits them. As Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA argues: “if the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told King Salman that this war has to end, it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”
All of the politicians who support the Saudi-led bombing, who refused to back the Yemen motion, along with the commentators and news outlets that continue to hide our complicity in this crisis, should have zero credibility when they next stand up to display grave concern about human rights or democracy somewhere (as they are now doing in Iran). The policy hawks and mainstream journalists have demonstrated that they aren’t particularly bothered about these things, and the public can see these performances for the cynical theatre it is, often with much uglier agendas behind it.
(footnote)¹ There are a couple of notable exceptions to this from the BBC (here and here), though these both date back to September 2015. The most recent treatment of the UK’s actual role in this crisis seems to be from Feb 2016.