First, they claim that Britain operates “one of the most robust arms export regimes in the world”. Second, they say that while Britain may arm Saudi Arabia, it does not pick the targets in Yemen. Third, they say that the Saudi-led coalition already investigates its own alleged violations of international humanitarian law.
These responses have long since been overtaken by the bloody reality of the Yemen war. In fact, as the conflict has continued, the killing of civilians has actually accelerated. According to Larry Lewis, a former US State Department official who was sent to Saudi Arabia in 2015 in an attempt to reduce civilian harm, the proportion of strikes against civilians by Saudi-led forces almost doubled between 2017 and 2018. Last July, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the architect of the air war, issued a royal decree “pardoning all military personnel who have taken part in Operation Restoring Hope of their respective military and disciplinary penalties.”
The Saudi-led coalition investigates itself. This work is done by the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT), a body composed of around 20 military officers from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which is charged with investigating reports of civilian deaths in Yemen. Larry Lewis, the US official who urged the Saudis to establish the JIAT, told me that the team does not have researchers on the ground inside Yemen, so it must rely on the Saudi Royal Air Force to provide it with information. “Occasionally they will take trips to Yemen to investigate high-visibility incidents,” he said. Lewis also said the JIAT was “designed to reduce common mistakes” such as hitting targets on the no-strike list – wells, hospitals, schools. Similarly, it was supposed to reduce the chances of Saudi forces “failing to deploy tactical patience” – for instance, bombing Houthi militiamen when they stop at a market, rather than waiting for them to leave to minimise civilian casualties. But Lewis now says the JIAT failed on its own terms, because it was simply ignored by the Saudi defence ministry.
For the British government, however, the JIAT provides a convenient figleaf for the continued licensing of arms exports to Riyadh. Researchers at the open-source investigative agency Bellingcat have accused the coalition of dishonesty in “the vast majority of JIAT assessments”. Rawan Shaif, who heads the group’s Yemen project, said that “the information that the UK has been relying on” is coming from “a partner you have been directly supporting in a conflict, who is lying to you about the majority of strikes”.
In the case of two particularly deadly attacks in May and July 2015 – in which more than 100 people were killed by airstrikes on outdoor markets in the town of Zabid and Fayoush, a suburb of Aden – the JIAT assessment simply insisted that the coalition had not bombed either location, in spite of reports by the UN, the BBC, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, as well as camera-smartphone footage from the sites making it clear that an airstrike had taken place. Elsewhere the JIAT has justified strikes by flatly asserting that the targets were military ones. After reports of civilian deaths in an airstrike in al-Jawf governorate in September 2016, JIAT released a statement claiming that the coalition had hit “Houthi commanders” travelling in a pickup truck. But when the UN and the Yemeni human rights group Mwatana made independent visits to the site, they discovered that the victims were a woman driving with her two sisters-in-law and their 12 children.
Dr Anna Stavrianakis, an academic researching arms licensing at the University of Sussex, who has regularly given evidence to CAEC, accused Jones of keeping Yemen off the committee’s agenda. “The government deliberately mobilises doubt and ambiguity when it comes to international humanitarian law violations in Yemen,” she said. “And the chair acts in support of government policy rather than acting impartially to scrutinise it.” In an email to the Guardian, Jones replied that his critics were “far-left Marxists who back a violent, racist, Islamic fascist militia” in Yemen, and said he had been “at the forefront of discussions on Yemeni issues”.
involvement in the Yemen war are nothing short of acrobatic. The government has tethered Britain, its military and its economy to the richest nation in the Arab world as it brutalises the poorest. Saudi Arabia is estimated to have spent $60-70bn every year on its failing war, nearly four times the current GDP of Yemen, and enough money to have secured the livelihoods of a generation of Yemenis.