Today the Saudi led coalition launched a full scale attack on the port of Hodeidah in Yemen. The Saudis and Emiratis have been urged not to do so by representatives from every humanitarian organisation in the world. Staunch allies of Saudi Arabia such as Britain have warned of the devastating consequences for civilians who will inevitably face the full impact of this military onslaught.
Although the British Prime Minister Theresa May and Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary have urged restraint in personal contact with the Emirates and with Muhammed Bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, warnings and fears have been ignored.
The problem for Britain is that we are complicit in this attack. We are part of the coalition that supports Saudi Arabia in its war in the Yemen. The Yemen is already blockaded by the Saudi coalition. Repeated warnings that a man-made famine is being generated have been ignored. Britain, as the ‘pen holder’ at the United Nations on Yemen nevertheless takes a nakedly pro Saudi approach to the conflict. Indeed, a recent Presidential statement drafted by Britain had to be suppressed by other members of that same Security Council. Britain rightly condemns the Houthi’s for launching sporadic missile attacks on Riyadh but stays silent on the nightly air attacks which kill innocent civilians in Yemen and are inflicted by the Saudi Air Force. When I was in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city last year, on one night alone, there were 6 terrifying bombing raids.
The British Government finds itself not on the side of innocent families who fear the fire that falls from above but on the side of the perpetrator who has now launched a huge military gamble to take the Yemeni port of Hodeidah from the Houthi rebels. The echoes of what the Russians did in Syria over Aleppo ring out. The UK Government rightly condemned the brutal attack on innocent lives in Aleppo. Where is Britain’s voice of sanity in the looming humanitarian catastrophe in Hodeidah?
This reckless assault to capture Yemen’s main port threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. It is time now for the British Government to make clear it will no longer support what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen and call for an immediate cease fire. We should align itself absolutely alongside the United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths - a British International civil servant of huge experience. Any hope he has of achieving a cease fire and the start of political negotiations is destroyed by today’s onslaught. Indeed, cynics are saying that the whole reason for the timing of this Saudi and Emirati attack on Hodeidah is to destroy any chance of Martin Griffiths and the United Nations securing the cease fire upon which those political talks must depend.
Be in no doubt, the immediate risk to civilians of this attack on the densely populated Hodeidah port is terrifying. The UN humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande states that ‘as many as 250,000 people may lose everything – even their lives’; the British Foreign Secretary has acknowledged that 350,000 people could be forced from their homes into the desert beyond where there is neither water nor food. The wider humanitarian risk is eye watering: enormous numbers of innocent Yemenis will be at risk of entrapment, displacement, disease and starvation. Turning Hodeidah into a conflict zone would restrict access to the port through which a massive 70% of Yemen’s imports flow. Any disruption to vital imports will be measured in Yemeni lives. Indeed, it is doubtful whether this attack could comply with International Humanitarian Law.
Finally, quite apart from risking humanitarian catastrophe and derailing any prospect of peace, respected military experts make clear that the plan for the attack is ‘lunacy’ – destined to fail or draw the coalition into a drawn out and bloody battle. Even the General leading the UAE’s forces has reportedly admitted that pacifying Hodeidah, if indeed it is possible, will take a very long time. The attention of British ministers and politician’s is inevitably focused elsewhere at this time but we should be unequivocal in our message to the UAE and Saudi: they will be held accountable for any violations against civilians and breaches of the rules of war carried out by forces that they train, pay or give orders to.
Britain, along with our allies in the US and France has unique influence to steer Saudi Arabia and the UAE away from this recklessness. Just consider what happens if Iran decides that the international rule based system is not standing up for international humanitarian law and intervenes further? As supporters of the Saudi/UAE–led coalition and key arms suppliers we bear a unique responsibility. We cannot face the other way as this catastrophe in Yemen unfolds. We must stand true to our own values, to strategic common sense, indeed true to our allies best interests and make clear we can no longer support their war in Yemen.
Thousands of Yemeni lives may hang on us doing the right thing. All our energies in this matter must be dedicated to supporting the United Nations in achieving a ceasefire and the start of the political negotiations upon which the future of this poor, tragic and beautiful country depend.