As hospitals are bombed, May can’t take a ‘business as usual’ approach to Saudi Arabia

The case for halting arms sales gets stronger every day


With every passing day, the argument for the cessation of arms sales to Saudi Arabia builds.

During the same week as World Humanitarian Day, 19 are dead as a result of an airstrike on an MSF-supported hospital in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition — the fourth attack against such a facility in less than 12 months.

David Cameron’s government stood idly by as civilians become the target of a brutal bombing campaign, and were more than happy to hide behind misleading statements for a year, only to slip in corrections at the 11th hour to cover its back.

Theresa May’s new government must step out of the murky shadows cast by their Saudi counterparts and put people before profits.

The UK licenced an estimated £3.3 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia during the first 12 months of the Yemen bombardment. This includes a £522 million deal for military training aircraft for the Saudi Air Force, coming against the backdrop of international opposition and warning from the UN.

Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood demanded in October 2015 that ‘if NGOs have evidence [of human rights abuses], they must bring it forward.’

Following this, a flurry of evidence came to light, including a UN report in January 2016 which detailed more than 100 possible breaches of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition, which confirmed a pattern of ‘widespread and systematic’ attacks on civilian targets, still resulted in no policy change.

International pressure on the previous Government was ratcheted up in February of this year, when the EU voted to ban the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. Seemingly desperate to do anything anti-EU, Cameron and Co. vehemently opposed and then ignored the resolution.

Former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Tobias Ellwood led the frenzied charge in denying Riyadh’s culpability; Hammond said in May that ‘Saudi Arabia has been and remains genuinely committed to [international humanitarian law] compliance’.

This regurgitation of Saudi propaganda would almost be laughable if it did not come with the near total destruction of Yemeni infrastructure, which will doom the country to poverty for years to come.

Tobias Ellwood parroting the government line, stated on the 24 February ‘we have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL by the coalition’ yet in the Government’s corrections before recess, Ellwood’s statement was changed to ‘we have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition’.

The previous Tory Government however, was about as likely to admit fault, as Riyadh is to find human rights abuses in its self-led investigations of its bombing campaigns.

Furthermore exceptions were made for nations when there was money to be made, as evidenced by ex chancellor George Osborne’s visit to the People’s Republic of China, where he was described as ‘the first Western official in recent years who has stressed more the region’s business potential instead of finding fault over the human-rights issue.’

This state sanctioned flaunting of humanitarian law must be relegated to the past. As prime minister, May has the opportunity to truly break away from her predecessor’s record, by having a clear position which puts the safety and needs of the world’s’ most vulnerable people before the demands of big business.

Yet, with much of her government reshuffle directing funding and attention to preparing for Brexit, there is an unshakeable feeling that the relationship with Saudi Arabia will remain business as usual.

It is innocent civilians who will suffer as a result.

Tom Brake MP is foreign affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats

See also: Calls for UK to suspend arms contracts with Saudi Arabia following hospital bombing

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