Activists have launched a court action to try to stop the British government from selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Critics accuse the Saudi-led coalition of violating international law through its bombing of civilian areas as it battles Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In October last year, 13-year-old Zuhair and his family were attending the funeral of a local sheikh in Sana’a. More than 1,000 people were packed in the community hall when warplanes fired two missiles at the building. More than 140 people were killed and 500 injured.
Zuhair recalls the moments after the explosions.
“My uncle carried me away,” he said. “I was burnt, my face, hands and my feet were very burnt. Then we took a taxi home. My clothes were burnt, all of me was burnt.”
Zuhair’s family was unable to pay for treatment and he did not receive any medical attention for two weeks, until workers from the charity Save the Children took him to a local hospital.
Today, bright pink scars that have only recently healed cover much of Zuhair’s body.
Human Rights Watch says forensic evidence from the bomb site shows the missiles came from Saudi jets, though Riyadh has denied responsibility.
‘Systematic targeting of civilians’
The Saudi-led military intervention, supported by the United States and Britain, is aimed at countering Iranian-backed Houthi fighters who control the capital Sana’a. But critics say one in three airstrikes have hit civilian sites, killing thousands of people.
The London-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade says Britain has sold Saudi Arabia weapons worth $4.1 billion since the Yemen conflict began in March 2015. This week, the group brought a legal case against the British government.
Spokesperson Kat Hobbs says the arms are being used in Yemen.
“We have seen the U.N. panel of experts say that it looks like there is widespread and systematic targeting of civilians by the Royal Saudi Air Force in the attacks on Yemen,” Hobbs said. “Now, if U.K. export control legislation means anything, then the U.K. government must call an immediate halt to arms sales to Saudi.”
Export controls, denials
The British government says it is continually reviewing its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, maintaining that it operates a “robust export control system.” However, it has refused comment on the court action.
According to Save the Children’s Fergus Drake, the conflict has caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes.
“There are 10 million children in need of humanitarian assistance, and half a million children have severe acute malnutrition,” Drake said. “So there have obviously been breaches of international law on all sides. But Saudi Arabia is a key ally of Britain, Britain is selling arms to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi-led coalition is killing children in Yemen.”
Saudi Arabia denies deliberately targeting civilians.
The British High Court is expected to make its ruling on arms exports in the next few weeks.