Comment | How many more Yemenis must die before Theresa May stops putting profits before lives?

After a thousand days of air strikes, and with millions of Yemeni lives under threat, Theresa May's government still won't do the right thing and stop UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, November 30, 2017 12:00 - 0 Comments

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“Theresa May was in Riyadh for high-level trade meetings with the world’s largest buyer of UK arms: the Saudi Royal Family.” (Source: SPA)

If there is one word that the UK government likes to use to describe its arms export policy it is ‘rigorous.’ Of course nothing could be further from the truth, but that hasn’t stopped Theresa May and her Cabinet colleagues from wheeling it out time and time again.

It’s a word that was used only yesterday by the First Secretary of State, Damian Green, when filling in for May at Prime Minister’s Questions. He was responding to a pointed question from the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford.

“Obviously I am aware of the current terrible situation in Yemen”, he began, somehow maintaining a straight face, “but he should also recognise that this country has one of the most rigorous and robust defence sales regimes in the world.”

Meanwhile, at the exact same time as Green was talking up the supposed strengths of UK arms export legislation, Theresa May was in Riyadh for high-level trade meetings with the world’s largest buyer of UK arms: the Saudi Royal Family.

Despite the upheaval taking place in the upper-echelons of the Saudi Royal Family, there is little doubt that arms sales were on the agenda.

Talks between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems have been taking place for quite some time. Only last month, and prior to his resignation, the then Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, was urging opposition MPs to stop criticising the Saudi regime in case it undermined the ongoing negotiations to sell a new batch of fighter jets.

May’s visit comes at a time when the Saudi military is rightly facing condemnation from around the world for the terrible humanitarian crisis it has inflicted on the people of Yemen. Over the last three years, Saudi forces have waged a terrible bombing campaign, which has killed thousands and displaced millions.

Things are getting even worse. The last three weeks have seen the awful bombing campaign complemented by a military blockade, which has stopped vital medical equipment and food from reaching those in need.

There have been small steps to ease the impact, but they don’t go anywhere near far enough. It has created a situation so appalling and dire that even Boris Johnson has called it “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Regardless of Johnson and May’s concerns, none of this has done nothing to get in the way of pushing arms sales. It has created devastation and tragedy for people on the ground in Yemen, but to the arms dealers it has been a business opportunity.

The UK has licensed over £4.6 billion worth of fighter jets, bombs and missiles since the bombardment began. These include Eurofighter Typhoon jets, which are flying over Yemen, and Paveway IV bombs that are being dropped from the sky.

In that time, Saudi forces have bombed schools, hospitals, homes and even a refugee camp. Last October, 140 people were killed when Saudi forces struck a funeral.

This indiscriminate bombardment has been widely accused of undermining international law, with a United Nations Expert Panel accusing the Saudi military of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Despite the pain and the destruction, not a single arms export licence has even been suspended, let alone revoked. In fact, this September, even as the worst cholera outbreak on record was taking root in Yemen, the Saudi military was being welcomed to London by civil servants and government ministers for the DSEI arms fair.

No matter how intolerable things have become for Yemeni people, the Saudi regime has always been able to count on the unbending and uncritical support of May, Johnson and the rest of their Cabinet colleagues.

Even now, after almost 1000 days of air strikes, and with millions of lives under threat, May and Johnson still can’t bring themselves to do the main things in their power that could help meaningfully the situation: stop the arms sales, which have fuelled this terrible war, and end their fawning support for the Saudi dictatorship.

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Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade and tweets at @CAATuk

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