Channel 4 Dispatches programme shows Britain’s involvement in this terrible war
On Monday 1 April 2019, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme showed some terrible scenes from the war in Yemen and the death and destruction which is taking place. The war has resulted in considerable misery for thousands of civilians and the programme reported that around 55,000 children under 5 have died from malnutrition as a result.
They focused on a bus which containing school children which was bombed in a market place killing 40. They were able to find a young survivor who had suffered shrapnel wounds but was lucky to have escaped with his life. He was understandably still traumatised.
Britain – as we have noted in this blog many times before – is a key supplier of weapons and the main supplier is BAE Systems who sell the Typhoon fighter jet. It is these jets, along with those supplied by the Americans, which are used to bomb Yemen and in particular, schools, mosques and hospitals.
In addition to supplying jets and munitions, the programme revealed that 6,000 BAE staff were working there involved in the crucial business of keeping the jets flying. They managed to excuse their activities by claiming that because they do not actually handle the weapons – the final 5% as someone put it – therefore they were not mercenaries. They also reported that British military personnel (which we know to be from the RAF) were also involved.
A great deal of time was spent interviewing various individuals concerning the ethics of supplying weapons – especially jets and their rockets – which are used by the Royal Saudi Air Force to cause such misery.
‘Dancing with the Devil is sometimes worth it’ former Air Vice-Marshall Sean Bell
One person interviewed was former Air vice-Marshall Sean Bell who argued that if we were not involved it could be a whole lot worse. This seemed to be based on the notion that we were in some way moderating the Saudi activities which seemed a weak argument especially in the light of the rest of the programme. He said ‘dancing with the devil is sometimes worth it’ because of the influence it gives us, not just with the Saudis but also in the Middle East generally. Our involvement and dependence on Saudi arms sales was featured in a Channel 4 news item with Bell. A Twitter feed on this topic can be found at @c4dispatches.
The British government has also been engaged in some dubious thinking based also on the notion of influence. The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP said in the House of Commons:
Because of our commercial relations with Saudi Arabia we are actively monitoring their compliance with International Human Rights law and we have a lot of contact with them […] We raise concerns with them if we think things are going wrong. Clip from the Dispatches programme
This concept of maintaining contact so that we can exert influence took a knock in the programme because it was revealed we have in fact next to no influence. Former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that attempts to hold back the Saudis seemed ineffectual since their attitude was to ‘act quickly and ask questions later.’
Further damage to the notion of influence was evidence from an American official sent to investigate after the school atrocity. It seems our personnel were ‘not where it mattered’ [in the control room that is] but that there was a separate floor where the operations were actually being directed. More damagingly, most of the strikes are not in fact controlled from Riyadh but are what are called ‘dynamic strikes’ conducted by SRAF pilots without reference to the control room. They do not have in their cockpits the vital information about which targets are safe to be hit.
Britain’s involvement in this war is calamitous for the country itself and our influence and reputation. We can hardly complain about Russia’s activities in Syria when we are only one remove from doing the same in Yemen. Because sale of arms to Saudi Arabia is so important and lucrative, we are not in a position to end it without significant damage to our balance of payments. The only beneficiary of this trade are the shareholders of BAE Systems and other arms firms and dealers. The losers are of course the 60,000 dead in Yemen.
In addition to the use of our weapons in this terrible war, is the fact that we have given support to this regime, a regime which systematically uses torture and has closed down any form of dissent and freedom of speech. Again the arguments are about our ‘influence’ which seems to be all but invisible. Members of the royal family are regularly rolled out to visit and add a veneer of respectability to the Saudi royals.
When Mohammad bin Salman assumed power the talk was of a reforming monarch. This disintegrated following the Khashoggi murder and more arrests of human rights activists.
The final word should perhaps go to Andrew Mitchell MP, interviewed on the programme, who said:
History will judge it as an appalling failure of British foreign policy