Thirteen million people are facing starvation due to the war in Yemen. Today’s call by the US State Department and Pentagon for Saudi Arabia to end the bombing of urban areas in Yemen within the next thirty days is an important policy change. The tireless advocacy of ceasefire and peace by international human rights and humanitarian organisations together with a number of smaller NGOs has played its part.
The UK is blessed by a large number of such voluntary groups, associations and formal organisations in civil society, one of its great strengths. They represent the country’s values more faithfully than successive governments, and put them into practice both in the fields of international relations and domestic poverty. They are often invisible, persevering on non-existent budgets.
Below is a letter to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent on 26 October from one such group. The authors await a reply. The US policy change will likely make the reply more than a routine acknowledgement of concern.
Yemen Safe Passage Group
“Dear Foreign Secretary,
Yemen: the famine of this century is rapidly becoming the crime of this century
The Yemen Safe Passage Group (YSPG) is writing to you as a group of former ambassadors and other diplomats, military officers, academics and aid professionals with a shared experience of working in Yemen. Yemen is back in the news following the renewal of fighting around Hodeidah and the UN’s revised estimate that half the population now faces starvation. There is still time to respond effectively to this crisis. The United Kingdom is in a position of exceptional influence. Working jointly with key allies and involving the regional powerbrokers, we can work for a ceasefire to avert complete disaster in Yemen and start to plan the country’s long road to recovery. Under your leadership, the Foreign Office has the opportunity for a fundamental rethink of the UK’s role.
Fundamental UK policy reset on the Yemen conflict
With the Khashoggi debacle, the veil has been lifted on Saudi Arabia’s lack of respect for international law. We have been arguing since our inception about the illegality of economic blockades and the military targeting of civilians. Those implicated in the Khashoggi affair have both initiated and continue to supervise Saudi involvement in Yemen’s war with all the breaches of international principles and laws that are so evident. The opportunity now presents itself for a strategic change of UK policy. To regain public confidence there needs to be a thorough review of UK interests, both upsides and downsides, which must be transparent and public. We continue to support the ever-growing calls for the suspension of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia until HMG is satisfied a sustainable peace in Yemen has been achieved.
Our analysis developed through extensive consultation with actors on every side of the conflict, indicates that the Coalition led by Saudi Arabia deploys two strategies in its attempt to prevail in Yemen – to escalate its military operations or to squeeze economically the areas outside its control in the hope that the population will then rise in its favour. However, a military victory is wholly unrealistic, as has been recognised in a succession of HMG statements, and its pursuit is unacceptable given the inevitable level of civilian casualties and wanton destruction. Economic warfare is banned by international law as is the targeting of schools and hospitals, which nevertheless continues. Such tactics leave a toxic legacy of bitterness and hatred towards those inflicting such suffering.
The UK has played a leading role in several positive initiatives in Yemen, including increasing humanitarian aid and supporting the efforts of the UN’s Special Envoy. However, HMG has allowed itself to be unduly influenced by the Saudis, and the benefits of our bilateral relationship have been greatly overstated. Rather than giving the UK ‘leverage’ over Saudi actions, the opposite has been the case. Recent academic research points convincingly in this direction. Specifically, the relationship has been deeply damaging to precisely what you yourself have been highlighting: British values and the rule of law. HMG succumbed to pressure in failing to halt the Coalition’s military action on Hodeidah in the full knowledge of its massive humanitarian implications. It has sought to defend licences for arms exports when their use against civilians has been well documented and is placing itself increasingly at risk of being implicated in war crimes. You have stressed that Saudi Arabia has helped keep terrorism off British streets, but at the same time we must recognise that, by creating such instability and resentment, the continuing war is feeding the underlying threat to the UK from terrorism.
In addition, HMG is not helping the long-term interests of our primary ally in the region. The bitter truth is that the Yemen war has been a disaster for the Saudis. It has increased rather than curtailed the influence of Iran on their southern border, has provided the Houthis with an excuse for their cross-border attacks on Saudi cities, and due to repeated and well publicised attacks on civilian targets has played a major role in destroying Saudi Arabia’s international reputation.
Need to decisively avert Yemen’s downward spiral to mass famine
We support the call from the UK’s Ambassador to the UN3 for unhindered access for commercial food supplies, especially on the main transport routes being threatened by current military operations, and for an end to Houthi interference with the humanitarian response. On the latter, we urge HMG to use its backchannel contacts with the Houthis to bring this to an end.
We urge HMG to focus on what lies ahead, and to consider where Yemen’s calamity is leading – a crippled economy, destitution, political instability and terrorism in a highly strategic location. The lack of governance and rampant corruption that have bedevilled Yemen have contributed to the paucity of basic services, have been major drivers of the resentments fuelling this war and have contributed to the rise of extreme Islamism. The war in turn is leading to a massive loss of human potential, so vital for the rebuilding of the country, with a generation out of school, the de-skilling of youth, and war forcing early marriage of Yemeni girls.
HMG needs to recognise the ever-growing opportunity cost of reconstruction from an ever-lower base and start to plan with others how Yemen will finance a balanced reconstruction reaching all areas, whatever political control they are under. This will allow for a future less dominated by outside interests and could dramatically contribute towards peace efforts.
The UK’s role in achieving a sustainable peace
Of the P5, the UK is uniquely placed to sponsor and prioritise an urgent ceasefire on all fronts especially Hodeidah. The recent joint statements made with major European powers are a welcome development and need to be maintained and extended to exert the necessary leverage. Only a ceasefire will allow the proper resumption of the UN Special Envoy’s diplomacy, which needs continuing and robust support, but additionally a more vocal and visible commitment from Western leaders, and a readiness to match words with action.
Immediate action to address the threatened famine
Decisive international action is needed to support the Yemeni riyal and address the reasons for its collapse, which include irresponsible currency printing, uncertainties over trade, and major hard currency revenues failing to be deposited at either of the components of the split Central Bank. Credible banking measures need to be put in place to allow unimpeded trading operations, including letters of credit for importers and the urgent reversal of Government of Yemen’s ‘Decree 75’ which in practice restricts the movement of goods. Credible sanctions are needed to thwart individuals, on all sides, who are making massive financial gains from their positions.
We urge the UK to play a leadership role by calling for Saudi Arabia and other parties to the conflict to agree a ceasefire and decisively move to bring the war in Yemen to an end. The UK can draw on its key role on Yemen within the UN, while working with European allies and the US to support such a change in Saudi strategy. Given the UK's historical links with Yemen, our alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and our continuing dialogue with Iran, the UK is best placed to bring the international community towards a working consensus to achieve a lasting and meaningful peace. This will start the process of rebuilding Yemen as a functioning State.
Yemen Safe Passage Coordinating Group, after extensive consultation within the wider group. See https://yemensafepassage.org/yspg-membership/ for the full listing.
James Firebrace (YSPG Coordinator). Please address replies to firstname.lastname@example.org Frances Guy (former UK Ambassador to Yemen) Captain Philip Holihead (former Head of Western Indian Ocean Counter–Piracy)”.