It is becoming harder to turn a blind eye to the suffering in Yemen, though plenty of people in London and Washington are trying. In the last month alone, the bombing of a funeral, killing at least 140 people, the strike on a prison, taking 58 more lives, and photographs of skeletal teenagers have all testified to the devastating impact of an overlooked war. Since it broke out in March last year at least 10,000 have died, including 4,000 civilians. The impoverished country struggled even in peacetime. Now more than 3 million have been displaced; 14 million are going hungry. Four out of five Yemenis need aid.
The Houthi rebels bear a good deal of blame for the devastation. They drove out the internationally recognised president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, allying with his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been ousted in the Arab spring. But heavy bombing by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition has claimed an inordinate number of civilian lives – including in the funeral and prison attacks – and it is done with arms and military support from the US, the UK and others.
Some argue that this western involvement is moderating Saudi behaviour. That argument, never convincing, looks thinner by the day. The former business secretary Vince Cable has now told the Guardianthat he was misled when he signed export licences for British-made missiles on the proviso that the UK would have oversight of potential targets, since the Ministry of Defence has said it has no military personnel in the “targeting chain”, and has denied ever offering Mr Cable such assurances. The inadequacy of any influence that Britain and the US have obtained in exchange for arms should be evident from the civilian death toll, repeated attacks on schools and hospitals, and growing evidence of the use of cluster bombs. Meanwhile, the conflict makes it easier for perpetrators of rights abuses elsewhere to brush aside criticism as sheer hypocrisy, and creates new opportunities for jihadists – surely not in British or American interests.
Some in Saudi Arabia, too, question the wisdom of an expensive war as it drains coffers that are harder to fill thanks to lower oil prices. Riyadh fears Iran’s growing power, and has no desire to see another country fall under its rival’s sway; US officials say they have intercepted weapons shipments to the rebels, which Iran denies, though some experts say that Tehran’s support for the Houthis appears to be more rhetorical than substantial. In any case, Riyadh has now invested so much political credibility in this conflict that it cannot easily walk away. The international community needs to help it find a way out – and up the pressure to make sure it takes it. The UN peace deal presented to the various parties last month (but not disclosed publicly) offers some faint hope: it signals at least that there is an attempt to move beyond simple demands for a restoration of the government and look for a realistic solution. But resolution is a long way off, and Mr Hadi’s rejection of the deal is unsurprising, since it appears that it would have sidelined him.
In the meantime, the absurdities mount. Half of the $115bn worth (£92bn) of weapons sales agreed under the Obama administration are still in the pipeline. Meanwhile, its ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, has urged Riyadh to halt indiscriminate strikes. The UK, which has licensed £3.3bn worth of salessince the Yemen conflict began, boasts of increasing aid by £37m. The pledge would be laughable if it was not so shameful. By August, the damage caused by war already stood at an estimated $14bn. The aid will go only a short way to repairing that – and no sum can restore lost limbs or revive the dead.
Such contradictions are fuelling calls by both US and UK politicians for a halt to arms sales and support. Beside the overwhelming moral case is the legal one: arms cannot be sold where there is a clear risk that they will be used in breach of international humanitarian law. There can now be little doubt that that is the case. The US has warned that security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque and announced a “policy review” – likely to mean kicking the issue into the long grass. In Britain, the parliamentary arms control committee split, with some MPs calling for an immediate suspension but others arguing that the UK should await the judicial review won by the Campaign Against Arms Trade. That is due to be heard early next year. But each day of delay means more stunted children, more maimings, more homes destroyed, more lives torn apart, more deaths by starvation or bombardment. There is no time to lose. Britain and the US should halt arms sales now.