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AOAV: all our reportsManufactured explosive weaponsYemenUkraineImpact on civilians

As the UK government courts Saudi Arabia, AOAV contemplates how the Saudis are reported to have harmed nine times more civilians in Yemen than Russia has in Ukraine

Ahead of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trip to Saudi Arabia to strengthen ties with the Kingdom, data from Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) explosive violence monitor reveals over the last decade that Saudi Arabia has killed or injured almost 800% more civilians in Yemen from explosive violence than Russia (and Russian-backed separatists) have harmed in Ukraine.

Taking data from English-language media sources, AOAV has evidence that, over the last decade, the Saudi led air-campaign over Yemen has killed or injured almost 11,000 civilians, compared to over 1,200 civilians tragically reported harmed by Russian-backed operations in Ukraine.

Both figures are probably conservative estimates owing to the limitations of reliable reporting in conflict zones. Russia has also been responsible for countless deaths in Syria. It is also likely that the conflict in Ukraine will terribly continue to take many more civilian lives.

Each death is a tragedy. Each life harmed is a family broken apart.

But questions need to be raised as to why, ahead of British PM Boris Johnson’s upcoming visit to Riyadh, spurred on by the UK’s search for more guaranteed sources of oil and gas, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss can so easily give Saudi Arabia her support.

On the 16 March she told Sky News that although she does not agree with all the policies of the Saudi government, “the reality is we are facing an aggressor in Vladimir Putin, who is wantonly destroying a neighbouring sovereign nation and we do need to work with countries across the world to find alternative sources of oil and gas”.

But is Saudi Arabia not also, as Truss described of Russia, a country that is “wantonly destroying a neighbouring sovereign nation”? 

The truth is that Saudi Arabia outranks Russia as a leading state perpetrator of civilian casualties from explosive weapon use in the last decade, according to AOAV data. From 2011 to present (16 Mar 2022), Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition have caused 10,854 civilian deaths and injuries from their use of explosive weapons in Yemen.

They are outranked in harm caused to civilians from explosive violence only by Syrian regime forces (25,074 civilian casualties), and ‘unknown’ State users of explosive weapons (17,317). Though the leading perpetrator of civilian casualties from explosive weapon use so far in 2022, Russia ranks sixth as a perpetrator of civilian casualties of explosive weapon use since 2011 (4,685) – though Russia may well be part of the ‘unknown’ belligerents in Syria.

Since the Saudi-led coalition’s military interventions in Yemen began in 2015, AOAV has recorded 15,905 civilian deaths and injuries from the use of explosive weapons in Yemen, accounting for 70% of the total recorded casualties from explosive weapons (22,843). Of these civilian casualties, 68% (10,854) have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition and Saudi Arabia’s use of explosive weapons. Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have been the primary weapon of harm to civilians, accounting for 9,881 civilian deaths and injuries.

So far this year (1 Jan to 16 Mar 2022), Russia is the leading State perpetrator of civilian casualties from explosive weapon use globally. This is down to their indiscriminate bombing of populated areas in Ukraine. According to AOAV data, the Russian state have caused at least 582 civilian casualties from explosive weapon use in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia is the second-worst perpetrator, causing 390 civilian casualties to date this year.

However, as Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen enters its seventh year, the average number of civilian casualties per incident of explosive weapon use is nearly double that of Russia’s average in Ukraine. In Ukraine, there is an average of seven civilian casualties per explosive weapon strike by Russian armed forces. In Yemen, the average number of civilian casualties killed and injured per strike by the Saudi-led coalition is 15.

Since 2014, explosive violence perpetrated by Russian or Russian backed separatists in Ukraine have killed or injured 1,223 civilians (Russia responsible for 566; separatists for 657).

​​Top 10 State perpetrators of civilian casualties from explosive weapon use (2011-Mar 2022)

State-user of Explosive WeaponsNumber of recorded incidentsTotal civilian casualties
Syria2,07825,074
unknown2,11017,317
Saudi-led coalition69410,854
US-led coalition7475,329
IDF6644,717
Russia5544,685
Israel3311,908
Iraq2871,832
Turkey4901,622
Libya1061,398

On 21 January 2022, a Saudi airstrike on a detention centre for migrants in Saada killed at least 91 civilians, some of whom were minors, and injured over 200 others. On 23 February 2022 in a, tragically, more typical strike by Saudi forces, three civilians were killed and nine injured, including women and children, in missile fire on a village in Monabih.

Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV, said: “There is a terrible double standards at play here. Whilst it is right for the UK government to call out pernicious Russian violence and interference at home and abroad, for them to then reinforce ties with Saudi Arabia, a country that has devastated Yemen with British-made weaponry systems, is simple hypocrisy.”

“The UK should condemn Russia for its human rights abuses. But to do so in the same moment it is embracing the Kingdom of Saud, who signed off on the execution of 81 people just this week, is political pragmatism at its worst.”