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UK aid efforts in Yemen crippled by arms sales to Saudi Arabia

3 min read

Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Diane Abbott MP, accuses the Government of ignoring "the bloody truth" that British arms sales to Saudi are undermining UK development efforts in Yemen​.

In Yemen, we are seeing the limits of David Cameron's humanitarianism.

It would appear that he is all in favour of a humanitarian approach. But only when it does not clash with the interests of a significant ally, like Saudi Arabia, and the profits of our arms industry. 

For close to a year now, Yemen’s ongoing humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by a furious Saudi-led bombing campaign.

And as with one hand our Government funds vital development projects in the country – with the other, it’s selling Saudi the weapons to destroy them.

The UK’s own envoy to the UN has said Yemenis are in the grip of ‘one of the very worst humanitarian crises in the world’. More than 50 percent of the population -12 million people - lack regular access to water. More than 7 million are starving.

Britain gives Yemen £106m a year in aid. But in the first three months of this conflict, we sold Saudi £1.7billion worth of arms licenses – £400million more than the total global aid given to Yemen over the same period.

Thousands have been killed in the war. Tens of thousands are wounded. By all accounts, airstrikes have been indiscriminate. Médecins Sans Frontieres has seen three of its facilities targeted in as many months. There is evidence of schools, refugee camps and essential civilian infrastructure being targeted.

The UN has found no less than 119 violations of humanitarian law.

The conflict places on development organisations an intolerable burden of ever growing need within – as Save the Children put it – an ever ‘shrinking humanitarian space’.

Parliament’s International Development Committee (IDC) has said the evidence it has heard that the Saudi-led coalition has committed violations of humanitarian law, using equipment supplied by the UK, is ‘overwhelming’.

The Government’s response has been to turn deaf, blind and mute to the bloody truth – actually rejecting calls for an international fact-finding mission to Yemen to investigate reports of abuses (suggesting instead an optional Saudi self-assessment of alleged atrocities).

DfID doesn’t seem to get what the fuss is about. In testimony teetering on the absurd, Minister Desmond Swayne flatly rejected the position of Save the Children, UNICEF, Oxfam and Saferworld: that British arms sales to Saudi were undermining UK development efforts in Yemen.

In a letter to Secretary of State Justine Greening, the IDC has called on the Government to take urgent action to suspend all sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, withdraw its opposition to the independent international inquiry, and pressure all parties to the conflict to ‘take all possible measures to protect civilians and allow humanitarian agencies a safe space in which to operate’.

Conflict exacerbates existing humanitarian crises. That’s basic common sense - backed up by hard evidence and harder experience.

Fueling Saudi’s war is crippling DfID’s own aid efforts in Yemen. Justine Greening seems to have maintained a determined indifference to the matter. Or perhaps it’s simply a strangled silence. Either way, it’s time she spoke up. And it’s time the Government remembered the cardinal rule of development: do no harm.

Diane Abbott MP is Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 

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