A ‘Global Britain’ must stop contributing to the war in Yemen
Prepared by Alexander Huntley & Simone Vuurpijl
As of March 2021, it is now the seventh year of the conflict in Yemen, a war that has resulted in a devastating humanitarian crisis. The war in Yemen provides post-Brexit UK with an opportunity to demonstrate to the world what a ‘Global Britain’ truly means. By changing course on the Yemen conflict, a Global Britain should prioritise stability and peace in the Middle East and beyond.
In the following pages, we propose four key policy recommendations to Her Majesty’s Government in an effort to reflect on the UK’s role in the Yemen War and pursue a truly ‘Global Britain’, defined by a steadfast and consistent commitment to peace, stability and human rights. At its core, these policy recommendations will position the UK as a global leader and help contribute to alleviating the suffering of the Yemeni people.
Thus, we recommend the UK government takes active steps to:
1) end military support for the Saudi-led coalition;
2) call upon the Saudi-led coalition to lift the blockade of Yemen;
3) reinstate the full aid budget to Yemen;
4) refocus and innovate the UK’s diplomatic approach to resolving the Yemen war.
The UK cannot work towards a diplomatic solution to the conflict if it is actively supporting the Saudi-led coalition. By adopting these policy recommendations the UK will benefit by establishing itself as a credible and responsible global leader.
What’s the issue?
Yemen’s civil war is now entering its seventh year with an estimated 233,000 deaths and 80% of the population in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which includes the UAE and several other Arab states, is the central force fighting against the Houthi rebels.
Diplomatically, the UK has played a distinctive role in efforts to reach peace. Britain has drafted several resolutions on Yemen, such as Resolution 2451 to adopt the Stockholm Agreement. It is also a force behind the initiating of peace talks. It is a member of the “Yemen Quad”, which aims to facilitate economic, political, diplomatic and security coordination in Yemen. Moreover, the UK, like the US, takes an active role in countering terrorism and violent extremism by working together with the Republic of Yemen Government to reduce ‘risk at home’.
However, the UK is also one of Saudi Arabia’s closest military supporters since the coalition’s entry into the Yemen war in 2015, thus playing a significant role in exacerbating the war and suffering of Yemeni civilians. Some of the UK’s areas of influence in the Yemen war are showcased below.
- Arms sales and military support
Billions of pounds worth of arms have been exported to Saudi Arabia over the past few years, within the first quarter of 2020, the UK authorised £1.4 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Whilst the UK government has insisted that the killing of innocent civilians by the Saudi-led coalition were ‘isolated incidences’, according to the Yemen Data Project, one third of all airstrikes in Yemen since 2015 hit civilian targets.
Since March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has imposed an air, sea and land blockade. In November 2017, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile towards Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. In response the Saudi-led coalition then tightened the blockade, purportedly as a measure to stop the smuggling of weapons into Yemen by Iran. In the name of security, this blockade has severely impacted commercial and aid imports, leading to great shortages in food, medicine, fuel, and essential goods. As 90 per cent of the country’s food is imported, the blockade poses a massive burden on the civilian population – whereby more than 10 million Yemenis are close to famine, with an estimated 85,000 infants having died from starvation or preventable disease between April 2015 and October 2018. In turn, this raises concern as to whether the blockade is being used as a war tactic – a clear breach of humanitarian law.
- Aid budget cut
The UK is now intent on further aggravating the world’s largest humanitarian crisis by slashing the aid budget for Yemen. The UK government recently announced a sharp cut in humanitarian aid to Yemen – £87 million was pledged, down from £160m in 2020.This move has been described as a death sentence to those most in need of assistance, coinciding with fears from the United Nations that Yemen is suffering the worst famine in decades. The UK government’s decision to cut aid to Yemen has been met with criticism by over one hundred charities, in which an open letter directed at the government read; “History will not judge this nation kindly if the government chooses to step away from the people in Yemen and thus destroy the UK’s global reputation as a country that steps up to help those most in need”.
- Diplomatic issues
Previous ceasefire and cooperation agreements like the Stockholm Agreement have been largely received as failures, met with little compliance and followed by retrogression into aggressive confrontations. Similarly, the Joint Declaration (JD) on Yemen in the UN has not been adopted yet, but has already been met with significant criticism. This demonstrates the need for the UK to refocus and innovate their strategic approach in the Yemen war to attain peace.
A post-Brexit UK has the unique possibility to alter its approach and become the “Global Britain” it aspires to be. The United States and EU Member States suspended their arms sales, along with all other military support for the Saudi-led coalition. Moreover, both the US and the EU recently voted to stop exporting security equipment to be used in the Yemen conflict. Now is the time for the UK to also rethink its approach towards Yemen, giving itself the opportunity to align itself with natural allies.
If a Global Britain wants to be a key actor in promoting peace, we would strongly suggest the following recommendations on Yemen as this will not only lessen the suffering of the Yemeni people but also work towards lasting stability in the region.
- End Military Support for the Saudi-Led Coalition
The blatant disregard that the Saudi-led coalition continues to demonstrate for the safety of the Yemeni civilian population cannot be reconciled with the UK’s commitment to protecting civilians during armed conflict. In a critical judgement, the Court of Appeals ruled that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia violated international humanitarian law. The UK is committed to a rules based international order and thus should honour this commitment by ending its military support for the Saudi-led coalition. Ending military assistance to the coalition would bolster the UK’s reputation as a responsible nation in the international community. The US and EU allies have stated their commitment to end their offensive military support for the Saudi-led coalition. The UK should at least join its key allies in this endeavour. This will send a clear and powerful message at home and abroad that the UK is committed to ending hostilities in Yemen.
- The UK must call upon Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade in Yemen
The blockade is preventing much-needed humanitarian aid from reaching 80% of the population. The full lifting of the blockade will allow humanitarian organisations to continue providing life-saving assistance and thus alleviate further suffering . The UN and EU leaders have already called on the Saudi-led coalition to fully lift the blockade of Yemeni ports, as it is leading to the worst famine in decades. By calling for the Coalition to lift the blockade, the UK would be demonstrating its commitment to the welfare of the Yemeni people. The UK should follow the example set out by its key allies, as not doing so could risks worsening their position in international relations as well as claims of working towards a ‘Global Britain’.
- Reinstate the Full Aid Budget to Yemen
The cut to foreign aid spending has been justified in light of the economic burden associated with the Covid-19 recovery. While we accept that economic recovery from the pandemic is a government priority it is imperative that the UK commits to humanitarian assistance when times are bad as well as good.
In November 2019, the UK’s representative at the UN spoke with pride at the UN Security Council that the UK was “contributing to the immediate food needs of more than one million Yemenis each month”. As the UN Security Council penholder on Yemen, the UK has a responsibility to the welfare of the Yemeni people and should maintain a commitment to foreign aid contributions which many depend on.
Providing consistent humanitarian aid, in line with a domestic and international commitment to 0.7% government spending on aid, will maintain the UK’s global reputation. Several Conservative party MPs have argued that British aid places the UK in good standing and presents an opportunity to play a global leadership role.
- The UK must refocus and innovate their diplomatic approach in the Yemen war
In an effort to depart from previous failings in peace talks, there is ample room for new paths to peace such as a bottom-up approach which can strengthen local agency and economies for capacity building and increase legitimacy between locals and the government. A local approach which focuses on achieving a ceasefire, humanitarian and environmental issues separately could build confidence and trust among actors. This will have a positive effect on future negotiations.
Also, the UK should enhance public diplomacy for the recovery process of Yemen. While the US has suspended its Fulbright Scholarship program for Yemen, the UK has maintained its equivalent Chevening Scholarship program. This excellent opportunity for Yemenis helps build local human capital to assist the recovery process of a post-war Yemen. These programs should be scaled up. In addition to this, the UK should be more active in supporting the Yemeni diaspora community of 70,000 people within the UK. By promoting entrepreneurship and investment, the British government can overcome challenges of economic and social exclusion and create positive social impacts for Yemen. This soft power diplomacy approach gives the UK an opportunity to become a sustainable foreign-policy leader and support the future of the Yemeni people.
Towards a Global Britain
The UK has been playing a central role in finding a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Yemen. It is the penholder of Yemen at the UN, a force behind the Stockholm Agreement, and has attended peace discussions. However, the UK is also one of the largest arms contributors to Saudi Arabia, it defunded the aid program on Yemen and is supporting the blockade. Although contradictory, there is no denying that the UK has been a key actor in this war for a long time. Now, the UK government has the opportunity to alter its policy towards Yemen to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people.
The four recommendations we have proposed accept the UK’s responsibility and help towards promoting sustainable peace. In addition, the UK also has a domestic interest in following the recommendations and fostering a humane environment for sustainable peace. Much like the US, the UK is trying to reduce risks at home by deploying counterterrorism and anti-violent-extremism efforts against ISIS and Al-Qaeda-affiliates. If adopted these recommendations will contribute towards more stability in the Middle East.
A “Global Britain” cannot turn its back away from Yemen. It has to recognise its role in the war and do everything it can to end this humanitarian crisis and be a driving force towards sustainable peace.
Simone and Alexander are students of the Conflict, Rights and Justice MSc.
Both are deeply interested in sustainable peacebuilding and the politics of the Middle East. Throughout her studies Simone has focused on international diplomacy, armed struggle and transitional justice. Alexander has academic and advocacy experience on human rights, armed conflicts and the Yemeni civil war.
This paper was submitted on 1st April 2021. The views expressed in this policy brief remain those of the author(s).