A highly critical report has found extensive flaws in the British government’s arms sales strategy.Based on analysis of the Yemen conflict, the study urges a reduction in weapons exports to conflict zones and states involved in human rights abuses. Taking Yemen as a case study, the report uses statistical analysis to support the case for a suspension of arms to the Saudi coalition, as well as other warzones and countries on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) watchlist for human rights breaches. The report’s authors challenged the government on its claim that the UK’s export controls system is “among the best and most robust in the world, with each application assessed on a case-by-case basis”, a stock response to criticism of existing measures.
Official UN statistics suggest the death toll in Yemen as of March 2018 was in the region of 6,592, with a further 10,470 people injured. Control Arms said the figures failed to take into account deaths from malnutrition and disease, which would bring the number of people killed to somewhere between 56,000 and 80,000, according to analysis by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled).
Detailing the devastating impact of conflict on Yemen’s infrastructure, Acled statistics revealed that of the 3,362 air strikes carried out in 2018, 420 hit residential areas, 231 struck farms, 95 hit civilian buses or vehicles, and 57 hit educational facilities or marketplaces. Ten attacks took place on medical facilities and two on NGO camps.
Noting that only 75 of 1,015 incidents affecting infrastructure were analysed by the joint incident investigation team, the report called for more comprehensive investigation of such attacks.
“Our conclusion is based on copious, authoritative information, and is compelling,” said Roy Isbister of Saferworld, joint authors of the report. “All of the warring parties in Yemen are repeatedly in breach of international law. Yet our voice is ignored by a government that will quote our work as ballast to its own arguments in other countries when it suits.”
Quoting statistics on arms supplies to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen conflict, the report shows that the British government authorised 18,107 open license deliveries of arms and dual-purpose equipment between 2015 and 2017, with no disclosure required of the quantities or value involved. A delivery could range from a single part for an aircraft valued at £1 to 20 Eurofighter Typhoon jets valued at £2.5bn. The figures exclude authorisations under single individual export and broker licenses.
“The reporting on the use of open licences is wholly inadequate, as the type and quantities of equipment are a mystery,” said Isbister. “Are we talking a few nuts and bolts, or containers full of critical fighter aircraft components? We don’t know, and the government won’t tell. It’s not good enough, not by a long shot.”
The report’s authors also recommended that the government should comply with its own FCO annual human rights report by ending arms supplies to countries guilty of human rights abuses. According to statistics supplied by NGO Action on Armed Violence, between 2008 and 2017, the UK government authorised arms export licenses worth £12bn to such countries, with a further £10bn in dual-use (military and non-military uses) licenses to countries on the FCO watchlist.
“The largest failing of the UK export control system in the last decade or more, by a mile, is the government’s willingness to supply the Saudi- and UAE-led war effort in Yemen,” said Isbister. “CAEC [ committees on arms export controls] had almost nothing to say on the matter in last year’s report; Yemen is completely absent from the terms of reference for the current enquiry, and we are at a loss to understand why.”
More than 24 million people in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance, almost half of them children, and food shortages continue to affect up to 16 million people, the report’s authors noted.