While criticism leveled against the U.K. government for its involvement in Yemen has focused on the country’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, newly published government documents reveal that the U.K.’s complicity in the conflict runs much deeper.
LONDON – While criticism leveled against the U.K. government for its involvement in Yemen has focused on the country’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, newly published government documents reveal that the U.K.’s complicity in the conflict runs much deeper.
The documents were made public in a newly published paper titled “UK Personnel Supporting the Saudi Armed Forces – Risk, Knowledge and Accountability,” which provides details as to the real “footprint” of the estimated 7,000 employees of U.K. contractor companies, civil servants, and temporarily deployed military personnel currently aiding the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) and other Saudi security forces in the waging of their brutal bombing campaign against Yemen.
According to the UN, that bombing campaign has killed 5,500 civilians and injured over 9,000 since it began in 2015. It has also targeted civilian infrastructure, which has completely collapsed. Among civilian targets have been hospitals and clinics, whose destruction coupled with the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of the country has allowed a “preventable” cholera epidemic to reach well over 1 million cases.
Written by researchers Michael Lewis and Katherine Templar, the report – among other notable findings — revealed that U.K. employees of U.K. weapons giant BAE Systems have continued to maintain the weapon systems of U.K. military aircraft sold to the Saudis, including training and operational squadrons, throughout the conflict. The forces thus supported include aircraft directly involved in the bombing campaign targeting Yemen at Taif air base and elsewhere.
The basis for the direct and continued involvement of U.K. personnel in aiding the RSAF comes from a secret government-to-government agreement first signed in 1986. The agreement — which had never been seen by the U.K. Parliament, or published until the release of this report — includes secret support clauses for U.K.-manufactured aircraft that commit U.K. personnel to the “arming and support” of those aircraft during active armed conflict, regardless of whether the conflict is “lawful” or directly involves the U.K.
The documents also show that the commitment was made by the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense against the advice of officials from the U.K. Foreign Office.
The report further details that U.K. employees stationed in Saudi Arabia are essentially gagged from reporting wrongdoing or war crimes. It notes that U.K. workers who have sought to whistleblow on alleged crimes have been routinely harassed and, in some cases, denied the related protections ostensibly available to them under U.K. employment and whistleblowing laws.
Maintaining government blinders
In addition, Lewis and Templar’s research revealed that the U.K.’s policy aimed at avoiding the possible misuse of U.K.-supplied arms has been circumvented. That policy, which normally involves the case-by-case scrutiny of transfers of licensable military equipment to Saudi Arabia, has been avoided in some notable cases by the use of a “whitelist” system that allows the U.K. government to remain conveniently ignorant of what types or quantities of military equipment U.K. companies sell to the Saudis.
It also prevents the U.K. government from knowing where that military equipment ultimately ends up — which is particularly troubling, given that the Saudi government has been known to funnel weapons to terrorist groups on several occasions.
Another related, and equally troubling, finding of the paper is that U.K. citizens aiding the RSAF are still involved in the handling of cluster munitions, which the Saudis continue to use in Yemen despite their use being banned by more than a hundred countries. While BAE systems implemented a “pull-back” of its employees from directly handling such munitions in 2008, reports from technicians and aircraft armorers cited in the paper allege that this “pull-back” was incomplete and that U.K. personnel are still present – and participate – in their use.
Though testimony proved this to be the case during the 2009-2010 Yemen conflict, the lack of public knowledge of the practice makes it likely that it has continued throughout the current Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. The use of cluster munitions by the Saudis has caused great suffering in Yemen, as they spread ordnance over a wide area and pose a long-term danger to civilians because many of them fail to detonate upon impact. In some cases, Yemeni children have discovered unexploded cluster bombs and taken them home, mistaking them for harmless objects only to have them detonate soon after.
Lucrative arms sales vs. humanitarian responsibilities: no contest
Further information provided in the report suggests that the U.K. government is deliberately avoiding its responsibility to report on possible violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Though government officials had argued before the U.K. High Court that the government’s arms-export officials take IHL risk into consideration based on information from Minister of Defense personnel, liaison officers and BAE Systems employees, the report found that there is, in fact, no Ministry of Defense guidance on possible IHL violations to U.K. military officials or personnel involved in Saudi Arabia.
This, combined with the “whitelist” system and BAE’s incomplete “pull-back” of direct involvement in the use of deadly cluster munitions, suggests that elements of the U.K. government have sought to hide its involvement in the Saudi-led bombing campaign and its associated war crimes in order to protect the U.K.’s lucrative arms sales to the Saudi government.
The U.K. government’s attempts to protect weapon sales to the Saudis are unsurprising given the numerous ties that BAE Systems, which holds a “near-monopoly position” in the U.K. defense industry, has to the U.K. political establishment. Chief among these ties is BAE’s link to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, whose husband and close political adviser, Philip May, works for the Capital Group, BAE’s largest shareholder and thus the largest beneficiary of the company’s arms sales abroad.
Read | UK personnel supporting the Saudi Armed Forces — risk, knowledge and accountability