Jo Cox on Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Jo Cox wrote a public Facebook post on Tuesday.

If, as the foreign secretary claims, “close relations with Gulf countries are vital in keeping Britain safe”, isn’t it also time to use our close relationship with Saudi Arabia to end the slaughter of Yemeni children?

Fifteen months ago the Yemeni conflict escalated, when the Saudi led-coalition launched a military operation in support of the government against Houthi opposition forces. Half of Yemen’s population now lack access to the most basic items – food, water and medicine. And with violence rife across the country, the death toll continues to rise.

Life for children in Yemen has always been tough but the recent conflict has made it unbearable. Children represent one third of civilian casualties and on average six children have been killed and injured every day since March last year. Children have also been raped, abducted and recruited as child soldiers. And as in Syria, even places that should be safe, such as schools and hospitals, are under continuous attack. There is nowhere to hide.

In 2015 the UN attributed 60 per cent of child casualties and 48 per cent of attacks on schools and hospitals to Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. And last week the UN secretary-general’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict for the first time put the coalition on the “list of shame” for the killing and maiming of children. They joined other state armed forces and non-state armed groups known for their appalling record of grave violations against children, including the South Sudanese and Syrian governments as well as Isis and Boko Haram. The Houthis were also listed, as they have been for the past several years.

However, in an unprecedented and deeply shocking move, on Monday night the secretary-general temporarily removed the Saudi-led coalition from the list after heavy lobbying from the Saudis and their allies. The removal is meant to be temporary pending a joint review of the UN and Saudi-led coalition, but Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN has already declared the decision “irreversible and unconditional”.

This sets an extremely damaging and dangerous precedent, weakens the report’s credibility and substantially undermines one of the only concrete international mechanisms for monitoring abuse against children in war. It also ignores the now overwhelming evidence of international humanitarian law violations in Yemen – some of which may even constitute as war crimes.

In light of this, the government’s position is indefensible and they must act with urgency to deliver on three asks. First, they should use all their influence – including our membership of the UN Security Council working group on children and armed conflict – to get the Saudis back where they belong on the “list of shame”.

Second, it’s time to stop dithering and work with the international community to set up an independent investigation into alleged violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

And finally, the government should immediately suspend arm sales to any party that risks using them in violation of international law. The UK is one of the largest suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia with sales reaching £6 billion last year. If the government continues to sell weapons to the Kingdom who then use them to cause indiscriminate and disproportionate damage to civilians and infrastructure, then they are doing so illegally according to domestic, EU and international law.

We heard again from the government this week that only by working with Saudi Arabia can we influence them. I accept this. But it is surely now time for the government to prove that this influence can help Yemen’s children, as well as keep Britain safe.

Tonight, children in Yemen will go to sleep in fear of today, and hoping for a better tomorrow. These children desperately need the UK government to deliver on the three asks. We cannot continue to let them down.

It would be nice if they honored her by doing that.

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