Yemen: 87 civilians killed by UK and US weapons in just over a year

Oxfam says its analysis of January 2021 to February 2022 underlines need for UK to stop arming Saudi Arabia

At least 87 civilians were killed by airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen using weapons supplied by the UK and US between January 2021 and February 2022, according to a new Oxfam analysis.

The charity accused the UK government of ignoring an identifiable “pattern of harm” caused by the indiscriminate bombing – and argues it amounts to legal grounds for Britain to end elements of its lucrative arms trade with Riyadh.

Martin Butcher, a policy adviser at Oxfam, said that there had been 431 airstrikes in the period monitored, roughly one a day, and that the “intensity of these attacks would not have been possible without a ready supply of arms”.

The sheer number of attacks, the 87 civilians killed and 136 wounded amounted to, Butcher added, “a pattern of violence against civilians” which all parties to the conflict, including arms suppliers, had failed to prevent.

A further 13 airstrikes carried out by British or American-made jets had taken place on hospitals and clinics, the Oxfam research added, with farms and homes routinely hit. Civilians were forced to leave their homes or places of shelter after a total of 293 raids from the air.

The Royal Saudi air force, the principal member of the international coalition fighting against Houthi rebels in Yemen, uses Typhoon and Tornado aircraft sold and maintained by Britain and F-15s from the US.

Some of the bombs used, such as the Paveway IV, are made in the UK – and the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) estimates that the total value of UK arms sales to Saudi since it began its intervention in the Yemen war in 2015 to be £23bn.

At the end of this month, the high court will hear a fresh appeal from CAAT against the UK’s decision to resume the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen in 2020. It argues the UK is acting unlawfully by ignoring potential war crimes.

Then trade secretary Liz Truss had ordered the restart – halted because CAAT won an earlier case at the court of appeal – after a review concluded there had been only “isolated incidents” of airstrikes that breached humanitarian law.

A total of 8,983 civilians have been killed since the war in Yemen began in 2014, according to the independent Yemen Data Project, but Oxfam has sought to focus on incidents between 2021-22 to demonstrate that civilians have been killed in airstrikes recently.

The complex conflict, in which several regional powers have become involved, has been described as triggering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. A six-month truce ended in October 2022, although airstrikes have not restarted. It is widely believed that Washington has pressured Riyadh to stop the aerial attacks.

Shortly after becoming president, Joe Biden said in February 2021 the US would halt the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia because of the situation in Yemen, but has since permitted the sale of over $4bn of defensive systems.

Relations between the two countries cooled markedly this autumn after Riyadh and other Opec members agreed to cut oil production, so boosting the price and in effect helping Russia finance its war in Ukraine.

Unlike the US, the UK has not taken any measures to restrict sales unless forced to by the courts – although British ministers and officials say that the UK takes its export responsibilities seriously.

Ministers have to personally authorise the export of arms to Riyadh that could be used in Yemen, with the international trade secretary taking advice from the foreign secretary before making a final decision.

Officials maintain a “tracker” – a dossier of more than 500 incidents documenting every airstrike where there is deemed to be a risk of civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure – to help ministers decide whether humanitarian law is being breached on a sustained basis.

The department of trade said the UK takes its arms licensing responsibilities seriously. A DIT spokesperson added: “We consider all our export applications thoroughly against a strict risk assessment framework and keep all licences under careful and continual review as standard.”


Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

The GuardianTramp

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