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UK arms sales fuelling Yemen crisis in potential breach of law says Oxfam

11th Sep 2015

Arms going to Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign of Yemen

The UK Government is quietly fuelling the Yemen conflict and exacerbating one of the world's worst humanitarian crises potentially in breach of both domestic and international laws on the sales of arms, Oxfam warned today. These laws prohibit arms deals where there is a clear risk that they might be used to commit war crimes or human rights abuses.

The Government says it is not directly involved in the bombing but since the conflict began UK arms exports have been replenishing Saudi Arabia's stocks of weapons. The Government has declined to give Parliament details of numbers or types.

Civilian targets including markets, grain warehouses, ports and a displaced persons camp have been hit in the bombing. As the conflict in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis have shown, it is important to search for political solutions before it is too late.

With 21 million people, 84 per cent of the population, in need of humanitarian aid, the Department for International Development is a leading donor, funding efforts to help civilians caught up in the crisis in Yemen. But Oxfam said this work was being undermined by the Government fuelling the conflict with arms sales and technical support.

The agency called on the Government to immediately take four steps:

  • Suspend arms shipments and military support to Saudi Arabia, which is leading the bombing campaign on Yemen
  • Undertake an investigation into whether UK arms have been used in attacks that may have breached international humanitarian law and condemn, in significantly more outspoken terms, attacks on civilians by all sides, including by Houthi and anti-Houthi armed groups, and by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes
  • Make every possible diplomatic effort to help bring the conflict to an end and
  • Continue to push for vital humanitarian and commercial supplies to enter Yemen and reach those most in need

Mark Goldring, Oxfam's Chief Executive said:

"Yemen has descended into a humanitarian disaster putting its people at risk of famine and the UK is materially involved through its export of arms and military support to the bombing campaign. An estimated eight children a day are killed or injured in Yemen's conflict. The on-going conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis it has produced show why it is so vitally important to search for political solutions before it is too late. It is time the government stopped supporting this war and put every possible effort into bringing an end to the carnage.

"There is a paradox at the heart of the government's approach to Yemen. On the one hand the Department for International Development is funding efforts to help civilians caught up in the conflict, while on the other the Government is fuelling the conflict that is causing unbearable human suffering.

"The UK successfully lobbied hard over many years for a UN Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the arms trade which came into being last year. This Government has incorporated the treaty into national law, yet at the first test of the new law it has turned a blind eye to mounting evidence of potential misuse of its weapons and support."

In 2013, David Cameron hailed the Arms Trade Treaty as a landmark agreement that would "save lives and ease the immense human suffering caused by armed conflict around the world." He said Britain should be proud of the role it had played in securing an agreement that would make the world safer for all.

Oxfam pointed out that all sides in the conflict were responsible for causing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and that the UK was not alone in sending arms to and supporting parties to the conflict. Several other countries, including the US, Russia, Iran, Germany and France have reportedly also supplied arms to the parties now fighting in Yemen, with supplies to the Houthis clouded in secrecy .

As one of the poorest countries in the world Yemen was in already in a dire humanitarian state before the upsurge in fighting in March. Since then 4,500 people have been killed, 1.8 million children are at risk of malnutrition, more than a million have been forced to flee their homes and 21 million people, 84 percent of the population, are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance.

Some 80 percent of the country's food and almost all of its fuel have to be imported, yet the Saudi-led coalition has restricted all imports, cutting people off from essential lifelines. The UK government has been working hard to convince the Saudi-led coalition to loosen what is effectively a blockade but vital aid and commercial supplies are still not getting in at the levels needed.

Human rights agencies have documented various examples of breaches of international humanitarian law and potential war crimes on both sides of the conflict. With such mounting evidence the UK government should urgently investigate whether its arms and support are facilitating this and act accordingly.

Oxfam briefing paper available here.

For more information contact: Ian Bray 01865 472289 or 07721 461 339

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Notes to editors

Oxfam has worked in Yemen for more than 30 years. Since March it has been delivering aid to more than 300,000 people. It plans to help more than one million across the country, from Aden in the south to Hajjah in the north costing £21m. Its programmes include trucking clean water, building latrines for communities displaced by the conflict and providing cash assistance to families forced from their homes. Working with local water authorities in Aden, Oxfam has also indirectly reached one million people with improved access to clean water. From August 2013 to August 2016 it will have received £15m for its work in Yemen from the Department for International Development.

Oxfam is a member of the Global Control Arms Coalition, which campaigns for tough controls on the international arms trade