Yemen bus attack: Why the UK must speak out

The war in Yemen has been raging for over three years, leaving the country in the grip of the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. Children are paying the heaviest price – facing the triple threat of bombs, hunger and disease.

Save the Children operates across battle lines in Yemen – protecting children affected by the war, distributing food and cash transfers so families can eat, and providing healthcare. Through this work, we’ve seen a complete disregard for children’s rights from all parties to the conflict.

When I visited the country earlier this year, I met children taught in sweltering tents because their schools had been destroyed. I visited clinics where health workers were performing heroics just trying to provide the most basic healthcare. Water and sanitation facilities have been damaged – contributing to the largest cholera outbreak in recorded history – and food and fuel supplies have been strangled, pushing 8 million people to the brink of famine.

The Department for International Development is playing a leading role in providing genuinely life-saving assistance to Yemeni families, and British citizens can rightly be proud of this work. However, there is more that the UK can and must do to protect Yemeni children.

A devastating attack

Two weeks ago, a school bus packed with young boys was hit by an airstrike, killing 40 and injuring 56 more. The airstrike was delivered by UK allies – the Saudi and Emirati-led Coalition – and the bomb was made in and sold by the USA. If ever there was a moment in this brutal conflict for the UK and the wider international community to say enough is enough, this was it. But unfortunately, little appears to have changed.

Instead, this week, the newly appointed Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt described the attack as “truly awful” but also stated that Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the war against terrorism and that the UK would raise concerns in private conversations, rather than through “megaphone diplomacy”.

Condemning an attack that is a violation of international humanitarian law is not megaphone diplomacy; it is essential if we want to live in a world in which the basic rules on which the world’s most vulnerable children’s protection depends are upheld.

Consistent condemnation

Through consistent condemnation of attacks on civilians – just as we have seen the UK Government do countless times in Syria and South Sudan – the UK would send a powerful signal that attacks on civilians are never acceptable and the deaths of children should never be accepted as legitimate “collateral damage”.

Last week, the FCO Minister Mark Field stated that the UK is “working so hard with its international partners to cherish and protect” the international rules-based system. This is welcome news – and was strongly reflected in the Foreign Secretary’s speech in Washington this week. But the discrepancy between these statements and the UK’s approach towards its allies involved in the conflict in Yemen is stark.

The silence from the UK on attacks like this one, and its steadfast refusal to suspend arms sales to parties to the conflict despite the clear risk that they may be used in violations of international humanitarian law, undermine this very same system and the values that we cherish. It creates a sense of impunity – enabling actors who violate the rights of children and other civilians to do so again and again.

In order for these rules to endure, there must be a line and the UK must say so – even when it is our allies that cross it.

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