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Saudi admits more civilian deaths from airstrikes as pressure mounts on stopping arms sales to the Kingdom

For the second time in a week, the Saudi Arabian Government has openly admitted that civilians were killed as a result of Saudi airstrikes being carried out over Yemen. On 1st September, the Saudi-led coalition’s investigative mechanism, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), disclosed that an air-to-surface strike on 9th August killed 51 people – including 40 children in rebel-held territory in the north of Yemen, and this was a direct consequence of mistakes having been made by the Saudi air force.

Yesterday, the Saudi Government admitted that, as a result of a further error on 23rd August, a Saudi air force surface-to-air strike killed civilians in the southern Yemeni port of Hodeidah (Al Hudaydah), a city with an urban population of almost 620,000 people, 75 miles to the west of Sana’a. The town – strategically important as an import hub for foodstuffs – has been the focus of such intense fighting that the UN has repeatedly tried, and failed, to put the port under international jurisdiction. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that 26 children and four women were killed in Al-Durayhimi area.

In its 1st September statement referring to the attack of 9th August, the Joint Forces Command of the Coalition “to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen”, stated that, “the Joint Forces Command of the Coalition expresses regret over the mistakes, extends its sympathies, condolences and solidarity to the families of the victims and announces its acceptance of the results and findings of (JIAT). The Joint Forces Command will, as soon as the official findings are received, undertake legal proceedings to hold the ones who committed mistakes accountable according to the rules and regulations related to such cases, and continue to revise and enhance its Rules of Engagement, according to operational lessons learned, in a manner that guarantees non-recurrence of such incidents.”

However, it is misleading to believe that all risks may be eliminated by learning from past mistakes. When ‘precision’ bombs are used in urban areas, even when intentionally directed away from civilians’ supposed sphere of activity, there is always a chance that: targeting may be inaccurate; the weapon may not detonate; that shocks reverberating from the initial explosion may travel farther than anticipated; and – perhaps most important of all – civilians may still be in the vicinity. In a statement made on 25th November 2017 (conveyed via the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in London), the Joint Incident Assessment Team concluded that the procedures of the Arab Coalition in Yemen were sound when carrying out its military objectives, and were, “consistent with the rules and customs of international humanitarian law”.

However, in responding to a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report of 4th August 2016, and which alleged that coalition forces bombed the Al-Sabeen maternity hospital in Sana’a, JICT confirmed that “Coalition forces targeted specific buildings inside the camp, using guided bombs to hit the legitimate military targets accurately. Shockwaves from the attack, however, caused minor collateral damage to the hospital.” Human Rights Watch and others have disputed the Saudi’s assertion that such “collateral damage” was minor and, in fact, civilians – including babies – were killed in the attack.

As Spain cancels sales of laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over the Yemen war, the question is – and as civilians continue to die – what is the next move for the United Kingdom and the United States?