Saudi Arabia minimising civilian casualties?

Gabriel Gatehouse, a white male TV reporter wearing a blue shirt and black trousers, walking through a mosque with a red carpet strewn with debris left by a suicide bombingI was rather surprised to hear the ongoing war in Yemen being described as the “forgotten war” on BBC’s Newsnight, as I’ve been hearing about it almost non-stop on my social media feeds; but then, I don’t watch the TV news much anymore (although do listen to the radio news and I admit I haven’t heard much about it there). Newsnight featured the war in Yemen Thursday and Friday nights last week, showing the aftermath of a suicide bombing in a mosque and the bombing by the “Saudi-led coalition” of what they claimed was a training centre for African jihadists, but whose owners said it was a water bottling plant; the TV crew found no evidence for the Saudis’ claims. O’Brien interviewed a Saudi brigadier general, Ahmad Assiri, and a Tory MP, Daniel Kawczynski, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

The interview with Brig Gen Assiri was not very helpful as he appeared (or pretended) not to know which incident O’Brien was talking about when he mentioned the bottling plant bombing. To that end, Newsnight could have sourced from the TV crew in Yemen the name of the plant, or the town where it happened. O’Brien tried to change the subject when he decided he wasn’t making much progress in getting an answer out of the general, and asked him about whether his armed forces were using British weapons, at which the general demanded to be allowed to finish answering the original question.

So, he then moved on to Kawczynski, alleging that a different set of rules seemed to apply to Saudi Arabia and asking if any investigation into war crimes would occur. Kawczynski responded by accusing Newsnight of one-sided coverage and of ignoring the atrocities committed by the Houthis, which O’Brien had mentioned in passing as having taken place in the Aden area, and the fact that the Houthis had been firing mortars into Saudi Arabia itself (the standard excuse of the Israelis when they bomb civilian targets in Gaza, of course). After O’Brien had repeated the question about an investigation yet again, Kawczynski accused him of talking constantly about Saudi Arabia, when this was in fact a coalition of 10 states, including several Gulf states, Egypt and Sudan; O’Brien repeated his question again, and said he had “all the time in the world to answer that question”. Kawczyski alleged that the war crimes were being committed by the “Houthi tribes”, not by Saudi Arabia.

O’Brien repeated the question yet again, and Kawczynski said, “you have an agenda against the Gulf States coalition”, seeking to “peddle the myth that only one side is responsible for atrocities”. Kawczynski asked why the BBC was not investigating Houthi war crimes, and O’Brien responded that the investigation was into whether the coalition was using British-made weapons to commit war crimes, which the Houthis, who are not our allies, are not. Kawczynski alleged that the ten countries involved were doing everything possible to limit civilian casualties. He said that Newsnight’s coverage was very different from that being shown on Arabic TV channels including Al-Jazeera; O’Brien responded that this is what could be expected from a channel partly funded by one of the members of the coalition. (According to al-Jazeera, the “German news agency DPA also quoted medical officials as saying the target in Abas was a drinking water factory”.)

O’Brien then repeated his question yet again, and Kaczynski made his accusation of bias yet again, and claimed that the bottling plant was in the middle of the desert and that the evidence of a military training centre that the TV crew could not find would have been removed from the scene before the TV crew got there. Kawczynski continued on his rant against the BBC, suggesting that they would never agree to a real impartial investigation as they were “omnipotent”, “supreme” and never made mistakes. O’Brien thanked him for his time and moved onto another story.

I think both Kawczynski’s central claims — that the BBC are biased against Saudi Arabia or its coalition and that they have striven to minimise civilian casualties — are laughable. Why on earth would the BBC be biased against the Saudis? Perhaps because it’s an absolute monarchy, one which has put a series of increasingly aged brothers on the throne for the past six decades? Perhaps because it has a history of egregious human rights abuses, in one well-known case torturing a group of western ex-pats into confessing to terrorist acts which were in fact committed by al-Qa’ida, which they did not want to admit were operating in their country? Perhaps because a western news agency doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for a country which does not allow women to drive, and requires women to get their husbands’ permission for pretty much anything, including medical treatment? Even if they spend billions on British weapons.

The claims that the ‘coalition’ has sought to minimise innocent casualties are disputed by pretty much anyone I have seen that has reported from the country, and from numerous people in Yemen who have managed to publish what they see on Twitter. In August, Amnesty International published a report (PDF) detailing the effects on civilians of eight particular air strikes, but the executive summary reads as follows:

The conflict has been raging in 20 out of the country’s 22 governorates and has killed close to 4,000 people, half of them civilians including hundreds of children, and displaced over one million since 25 March 2015. All the parties involved in the conflict have displayed a flagrant disregard for civilian lives and fundamental principles of international humanitarian law. They have killed and injured hundreds of civilians not involved in the conflict, many of them children and women, in unlawful (disproportionate and indiscriminate) ground and air attacks.

In the southern region of the country, Huthi and anti-Huthi armed groups battling for control of Yemen’s second and third largest cities, Aden and Ta’iz, and surrounding areas have routinely launched attacks into densely populated residential neighbourhoods, using imprecise weapons which cannot be aimed at specific targets and which should never be used in residential areas, killing and maiming scores of civilians.

Fighters on both sides have been operating in the midst of residential neighbourhoods, launching attacks from or near homes, schools and hospitals, endangering civilians in those areas by exposing them to the risk of reprisal attacks (and at times putting them in the line of fire of their own malfunctioning weapons). In addition to large numbers of civilian casualties resulting from indiscriminate attacks, dozens of civilians returning home after the end of the fighting in the Aden region have been killed and injured from landmines laid by the warring parties.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have killed and wounded civilians, in unlawful airstrikes which failed to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects in Huthi-controlled areas.

As is generally agreed, both sides are responsible for atrocities and civilian casualties: the Houthis’ anti-aircraft fire, when it does not hit aircraft, explodes on the ground, often in populated areas; Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, was known to site military bases in civilian areas and these include weapons stores which have been hit by air strikes in this war. The Amnesty report contains examples of air strikes which hit civilian targets which showed no evidence of military use, including schools, mosques, markets and private homes, including of displaced people who had no connection to the Houthis.

It beggars belief that a western parliamentarian should expect his audience to join him in assuming that a coalition of régimes with mostly appalling human rights records, which use torture, which employ secret police to spy on their people, which massacre demonstrators, which treat workers employed from poor countries like dirt, housing them in cramped and insanitary conditions, withholding their passports, not paying them on time or at all, which have poor workplace health and safety records and as we saw last week, failed to stabilise or secure a crane properly to stop it collapsing on worshippers at the Ka’ba when it rained, would have either the inclination or the competence to minimise civilian casualties while bombing a country inhabited by poor Muslims. Only blind partisanship or vested interests could possibly lead someone to always assume the best of despots.

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