A group of children laugh as they play on a street in their neighbourhood. One of them, a little girl, spies something half buried in the dust just a few metres away. She runs over to it, reminding herself to scold her baby brother for leaving his toys lying around again. As she approaches, she realises she does not recognise the toy but assumes it must belong to one of the others. In a second she has picked it up and in another she is unconscious.
When she awakes she knows two things. First: what she took from the dust was no children’s toy. Second: what she took from the dust took her legs.
Frustratingly, there are no concrete statistics on the number of children who have been made amputees as a result of the Yemen Civil War.
The plight of Yemen has been described as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” by the United Nations, a result of the warfare and the related economic collapse and famine.
For years, numerous human rights violations have been documented including unlawful airstrikes, the use of child soldiers and arbitrary detentions. Recently, however, there has been a growing call to address alleged war crimes committed by both sides and there may be more guilty parties than immediately obvious.
The main players in the war that entered its sixth year in March are the Yemeni government forces and the Houthis, a minority rebel group, but this is a gross oversimplification of the conflict.
The civil war is a proxy war, meaning that it is a site for other parties to try and achieve their interests by influencing the conflict. The Houthis are backed by Iran and the government forces by a Saudi-led coalition that includes the US, the UK and France.
When it comes to the issue of war crimes it is usual for the international gaze to rest upon the central, non-Western players. Now, the gaze is widening, and the roles of the Arab nations’ Western allies are being scrutinised.
So, what part has the UK actually played in the war? Perhaps the most obvious is their arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
The country is the UK’s biggest weapons customer and between the start of the war in Yemen and 2019 the value of these deals has been reported at £4.7bn by the House of Lords International Relations Committee and as high as £6.2bn, according to some sources.
An investigation into 27 allegedly unlawful airstrikes launched by the coalition between 2015 and 2018 found that UK-made weapons were probably used in five cases. The targets of these 27 strikes included civilian homes, schools and hospitals, killing and injuring at least 122 children.
Following investigations such as this, on the 20th June 2019, arms sales from Britain to Saudi Arabia were ruled as a breach of humanitarian law. As a result, arms sales were suspended but the ruling was not accepted by the British administration and by July 2020 the ban had been reversed.
Even if one does not condone these arms deals, they can perhaps understand how the UK justifies them. After all, as it has frequently asserted, the UK does not pick the targets.
But Britain does not only influence the Yemeni war from a distance, it actively participates on the ground: RAF personnel are deployed to train Saudi pilots and work as engineers.
It seems massively counterintuitive then, that the same people pouring arms and personnel into a war for the sake of “influence…[in] the course of events in Yemen” and the pursuit of peace, as Jeremy Hunt stated, are also part of the UN which cut a third of its humanitarian programmes in Yemen this year due to lack of funding.
Here in the UK we do not hesitate to let our children play in the streets for fear of landmines. Our skies are darkened by grey clouds, not bomber planes. In this relative comfort it is easy to assume that our government is a stalwart of humanitarianism.
For the good of democratic accountability and the moral consistency of our nation, we should not let these assumptions go unexamined.