Ceasefire is first bit of good news for Yemen, says UN envoy

18 December 2018

CHURCH TIMES

An anti-arms-trade mural commissioned by Christian Aid, on display in East London, depicts a Yemeni child receiving a sack-load of guns

An anti-arms-trade mural commissioned by Christian Aid, on display in East London, depicts a Yemeni child receiving a sack-load of guns

THE United Nations’s special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has expressed his hope for the war-torn country, in the light of the ceasefire that came into effect at midnight on Monday.

On Wednesday of last week, after talks in Sweden, Houthi rebels, who are aligned with Iran, and the Yemeni government, which is supported by Saudi Arabia, agreed to cease fighting in the port city of Hodeidah and withdraw their forces.

Mr Griffiths told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday morning that the ceasefire “does seem to be working so far”. There had been “some skirmishing” on the front-lines between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. local time, but “the pattern at the moment is a positive one.” The observing of the ceasefire was “the first bit of good news in Yemen, in tangible terms”.

Two things would now happen, Mr Griffiths said. First, a UN committee would convene to monitor the ceasefire, “ideally” on Wednesday. It would be chaired by the retired Dutch general, Patrick Cammaert.

Second, the UN would seek the redeployment and withdrawal of the opposing forces, first in Hodeidah and on the front lines around the city. “So, by the end of the year — that is, within two weeks — we hope and plan and aim to see those disengagements.”

The UN would seek further withdrawals of forces by mid-January, he said, so that humanitarian supplies could pass between Hodeidah and Sana’a. “Our UN monitors will be present and monitoring and reporting weekly to the Security Council.”

Mr Griffiths said that “the prospect of famine” had been “a considerable factor in getting the parties to agree.

“In Yemen, we’re already feeding eight million people a month. If famine takes hold . . . this could go up to 14 million people. That’s fully half of the entire population of the country.”

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The port of Hodeidah is the main point of entry for the aid on which millions of Yemenis depend. Nearly a quarter of a million are on the brink of starvation, and 20 million are food insecure.

Last Friday, Christian Aid welcomed the peace talks as “an important step towards lasting peace”, but warned that “the billions of dollars of immoral arms deals undermine the likelihood of lasting peace”.

A report published by the charity, Resourcing War and Peace, identifies Yemen as “the most glaring example of the double standard in the UK’s response to global conflict”. It says that the UK is both leading calls for a peace agreement and spending millions on humanitarian aid in Yemen, and promoting “massive new arms sales” to Saudi Arabia.

Between 2013 and 2017, almost half (49 per cent) of the UK’s major arms exports went to Saudi Arabia, Resourcing War and Peace says. Since the conflict in Yemen began, these sales are estimated to have contributed £4.6 billion to the UK economy. “Putting UK business first is at the heart of these double standards”, the report says.

A poll carried out by ComRes, which was commissioned by Christian Aid, found that 61 per cent of respondents agreed that the Government should stop selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The plight of Yemen’s civilians “casts a shadow over the UK Government’s attempts to profile itself as a values-based international actor committed to tackling global conflict”, Christian Aid said.

On Monday, a Government spokesman said: “We operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world, and keep our defence exports to Saudi Arabia under careful and continual review.

“The UK is playing a leading role in responding to the crisis in Yemen, both through its UK aid programmes and its diplomatic influence, including by meeting the immediate food needs of four million Yemenis.”

The UK is the fifth largest donor to Yemen, providing more than £570 million since 2015.

Christian Aid is not the first to accuse the Government of complicity in Yemen’s tragedy (News, 30 November). A year ago, a former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, told the House of Commons that Britain was “dangerously complicit” in an “almighty catastrophe of biblical proportions” unfolding in the country. He spoke of a policy “riddled with internal inconsistencies”.

Last month, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, asked in the House of Lords what representations the Government had made to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “about the use of British-built military hardware, which some people are really concerned could be used for, as is being alleged, war crimes”.

He was told that the Government had made “very strong representations”, and that a “joint centre” had been established “to improve how targeting was done in a way that minimised civilians and in which allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law could be investigated and reports published”.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has mounted a legal challenge the Government’s decision to license the export of military equipment to Saudi Arabia. An appeal will be heard in April. The Labour Party has calling for an independent UN-led investigation of all allegations of war crimes in Yemen and for the suspension of UK arms sales until this is complete.

Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, and Finland have all suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia; and the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has indicated that his government is looking to exit a multi-billion-dollar arms deal with the country.

Resourcing War and Peace looks beyond Yemen, accusing the British Government of being “in direct violation of its own international commitments to regulate its arms exports to states acting illegally and repressively”. Saudi Arabia, it notes, has been a “major financial supporter of radical and armed Islamic movements across the world”.

While celebrating the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of its Gross National Income (GNI) on aid, it notes that the country is “on track to be one of the world’s biggest arms dealers — fuelling war instead of peace”.

It notes that the UK deliberately allocates half of its developmental spending to conflict-affected states, yet sells more than half of its arms exports to countries within the same regions.

The vote to leave the EU and subsequent focus on “Global Britain” has intensified the focus on arms exports in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific region, it suggests.

Karol Balfe, who leads on Christian Aid’s global peacebuilding programme, said last Friday: “No other arms exporter comes close to this dependence on the Gulf market. In turn, this means that the Royal Saudi Air Force is hugely dependent on British-made aircraft and missiles — maintained and supported in-country by British military and civilian technicians for its own operations.

“The UK Government risks putting its own perceived national security and domestic interests ahead of human security and protection of those living in conflict. In our work, we see that local actors make a huge difference in turning the tide of violence.”

As part of the charity’s peacemakers appeal, its supporters are sending Christmas cards to the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, echoing the demand that the UK immediately ceases to sell arms to the Saudi-led coalition.

In a video filmed at Whitehall, Lord Williams, Christian Aid’s chair and a former Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “We can’t pretend that British involvement in war is a thing of the past. We may not have experienced the direct effects of war in this country for a lifetime, and we can be thankful for that; but our overseas policies are still helping to support violence and injustice elsewhere in the world, among those least able to defend themselves.”

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