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Yemen, Humanitarianism and the Damned Arms Trade

Updated: May 24, 2023

“Yemen is, as I call it, not the forgotten war but the ignored war.”

The TEDxFromHome interview with Yemeni human rights activist and co-founder of the Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights, Radhya Al-Mutawakel, is not a light watch. She talks about the terrors of the war in Yemen, of man-made starvation and torture, of attacks on schools and hospitals and sexual violence; Yemen has come to be known for the worst humanitarian crisis of our time for a reason. She also talks about something, if possible, even more striking the possibility of peace and the things that stand in the way of that possibility:

"The parties to the conflict themselves don't have a real interest to stop the war. Also, the international community doesn't have a real interest to stop the war. [...] If they want, they can do it. Especially the international community."

Yeah... Let's Pause and Rewind there.

According to Radhya, the war could end and peace and a legitimate state could be established if there was one crucial resource international willingness. And namely, willingness from internationally powerful states such as our own, or the USA, or France. This is not to say that a little help from the West would make the resolution of the conflict simple, but rather, as Radhya points out, it would put it very much in the realm of possibility.

Radhya gives the example of the Stockholm Agreement. She names the murder of US-based journalist and critic of the Saudi Arabian government Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 as a catalyst for the peace talks: The murder created international condemnation and scrutiny of the Saudi government, which in turn created pressure on the European states and the US, allied with Saudi Arabia, to take action towards peace in Yemen. Saudi Arabia quickly bent to the will of its allies. And so the UN-convened talks in Sweden managed to bring the Houthis and the Hadi government to the table together and formulate an agreement, the Stockholm Agreement, establishing a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah only two months after the Khashoggi murder.

So, if peace really is so attainable with a push from powerful allies, why has the war in Yemen been ongoing since 2015? Why, in other words, isn't it in the interest of the international community to see an end to the war? Well, it is a question of political and financial interests, as pointed out by Radhya. It is, to reference my title, a question of the damned arms trade.

Instead of pushing for an end to violence and for a beginning to peace talks, the UK, alongside other European states and the US, is selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. According to data from the UK Government and SIPRI, the UK is the second-largest supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia, making up 13% of total imports. Furthermore, the value of all UK arms exports, 41% of which go to Saudi Arabia, is estimated at £5.2bn for 2018 and expected to rise to nearly £6bn this year. Of course there is nothing new about the profitability of arms trade. Defence contractors are sponsoring and being sponsored by everything from our universities to museums, after all.

However, UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia seem particularly outrageous, immoral, and perhaps even illegal. This is not only because of the fundamental reality that supplying arms to be used in a war that has directly or indirectly claimed the lives of more than 230,000 people (over half of whom were children under the age of five) is hardly defensible, but also because of the refusal of decision-makers to acknowledge any accountability for these atrocities: In 2019, the UNHRC-appointed Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen concluded that the perpetration of war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen makes arms trade with Saudi Arabia questionable under international law and specifically highlighted the UK's responsibility to use its influence to press for peace due to the country's close relationship with and consequent influence on the Saudi government. Despite this, the UK government resumed granting licenses for exporting arms to Saudi Arabia just this July, claiming that Saudi breaches of international law in Yemen had been "isolated incidents". Just like that, the government brushes off the responsibility and accountability assigned to it. And importantly it is, as it has always been, a government that the people of this country elected.

This is perhaps the most difficult pill to swallow; is it really so that we are all responsible, regardless of our personal convictions and through our democratically elected government, for death and destruction in Yemen? You may think I am making an unfair accusation here, but I do think that it is essential that we change the way we think about our own role in the war and crisis in Yemen. Because the way we think about our role in the war will influence the action we take and the level of urgency with which we take it.

So, what action should we take, then? Let's hear what Radhya has to say:

"...humanitarian aid or donations for humanitarian aid will not solve the problem [...] it's more viable to put pressure on the international community and on the UK to take steps, serious steps towards ending the war in Yemen."

This might be surprising as, I'm sure, for many of us the most familiar element of the war in Yemen is the humanitarian crisis it has caused. As Radhya points out, nearly the entire population of the country is in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance. But while the work of humanitarian NGOs is vital, donating is not the most we can do.

Donating to humanitarian aid as the primary action we take against the war falsely puts us in the position of, well, the humanitarian. The outsider, whose participation is impartial and charitable. While we may want to consider donations as aid is nonetheless desperately needed, it is even more crucial that we address our own compliance, if not outright participation, as a driver of the conflict. The need of humanitarian aid is a consequence of the war. And the continuation of the war is partially a consequence of our failure to demand accountability from our government. We need to change our perspective; we are a party to this war.

As Radhya emphasised,

"Yemen is famous for being the worst humanitarian crisis and we in Mwatana keep adding it's a human rights crisis and it is a man-made crisis."

It is a crisis generated by the continued disregard of people for the human rights, dignity, and life of others. And it is propelled not by unawareness but by neglect. So, perhaps the most powerful thing you can do for the people not forgotten, but ignored, is to reject apathy and campaign for peace as if it is a matter of life and death, because it is.


Written by Aada Orava. Edited by Robert Fletcher and Atharv Joshi.

You can view the full interview with Radhya Al-Mutawakel by clicking here.

To find out more about Radhya's work, you can visit the website of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights.

If you have any questions concerning the article, its research, and opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email

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