After intense international scrutiny, Saudi Arabia has finally admitted to using UK manufactured cluster bombs in its war in Yemen. Both the UK and Saudi Arabia had repeatedly denied the use of these controversial weapons, which are illegal under an international treaty to which the UK is a party. This admission will cause significant embarrassment to both parties, and lead to further pressure on the exports of British weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The war in YemenIn the aftermath of the Arab spring in 2011, the impoverished Middle Eastern nation of Yemen was plunged into political chaos. A civil war began in 2015, after the incumbent president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was ousted by Houthi Rebels, a Shia political movement. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention to support Mr Hadi’s forces and have since been heavily bombing the country. The war has led to a large-scale humanitarian crisis, with up to 80% of the population in need of aid.
The Saudi Arabian intervention has been met with strong criticism, after multiple allegations of war crimes. Air strikes have killed thousands of civilians, with attacks such as the bombing of a funeral clearly violating international law regarding targeting and proportionality. Moreover, Saudi forces have now admitted to using indiscriminate weapons in the form of cluster bombs, raising significant concerns with the respect for the laws of war.
What are cluster bombs?
Cluster bombs are explosive weapons that release smaller sub munitions after being launched. As they release smaller bombs over a wider area, they are often deemed as particularly damaging to civilians and an indiscriminate form of weaponry. Even if the bombs fail to explode upon impact, the wide range of their emission means that they often harm civilians long after a conflict has ended.
The use of these weapons was confirmed this week by the Saudi government, after a UK government investigation into the war in Yemen. Ahmed Asiri, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, stated: “It has become apparent that there was limited use by the coalition of the UK-manufactured BL755 cluster munition in Yemen.” Saudi Arabia claims the weapons were not used on civilians, and has now said it will cease to use the bombs, which were allegedly sold during the 1980s.
Are cluster bombs prohibited under international law?
The legal status of cluster bombs is arguably unclear under international law. In 2008, the Convention on cluster munitions was adopted and has now been signed by over 100 countries. The treaty aims to provide a framework for the eradication of cluster munitions, through prohibition on the development, use and sale of cluster bombs. The UK is a signatory party to the Convention, and therefore has an obligation to work towards the prevention of their usage. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is not a party to the treaty and thus remains technically unbound by its substantive provisions.
However, under customary international law (general practice which is accepted as binding law), there is a prohibition on indiscriminate attacks in international humanitarian law. The principle of distinguishing between civilians and combatants was described as an “intransgressible rule” by the International Court of Justice in the famous Nuclear Weapons case, and therefore scenarios where these weapons can be legitimately used appear to be very limited.
The use cluster munitions in Croatia was examined by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Martić case in 1996. Here, the court found the use of such weapons illegal as it was indiscriminate and disproportional to the military objective. If war crimes trials were ever to be brought for the Yemeni War, then the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas could cause a similar result.
British arms exports under the spotlight
Whilst the UK stopped selling cluster bombs in 1989, it continues to supply Saudi Arabia with a variety of weapons. The allegations of war crimes have made this a controversial practice, and the admittance of the use of highly condemned weapons in international law further undermines the legitimacy of the UK’s arms sales. This admission comes at a sensitive time for the UK arms industry, with large defence contractor BAE systems currently hoping to sell 48 Typhoon to the Saudi government in a deal worth billions of pounds.
The UK government will now undoubtedly face greater scrutiny over its role in the Yemeni war. Human Rights groups have claimed that the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (a separate, more generalised agreement) is being breached by the UK, through the sales of weapons to violators of international humanitarian law. These calls are likely to grow, and the US has already cut its arms sales to Saudi Arabia this month over similar fears.
For now, the Saudi Arabian government remains the recipient of British weapons, after assurances were made that they will conduct investigations into civilian deaths. The arms industry is a lucrative business for the UK, and the oil rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a major client. It is therefore difficult to know whether this admission will impact the commercial relationship between the two states in any way.
On the ground in Yemen, the war continues unabated. With international attention understandably diverted by the systematic atrocities in Syria, Yemen is arguably the world’s “forgotten war”. For the civilians in desperate need of aid the immense suffering looks set to continue, with no clear end in sight.