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Britain's Foreign Secretary Just Spoke About the UK's Ties to Saudi Arabia

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goals promote justice, and call for a reduction in violence. They also specifically address the need to protect children from violence, abuse, and exploitation. And yet, millions of children are still being forced to live in conflict zones like Yemen, facing the devastating daily reality of war. You can join us by taking action here to help support children in conflict zones. 

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has spoken about the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, after a Saudi-led airstrike hit a busy market place in northern Yemen. 

The strike in Majz district, on Aug. 9, hit a school bus carrying children coming back from a summer camp, killing 40 children aged between 6 and 11. The strike also killed 11 adults, and wounded 79 people — 56 of them children. 

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The attack came just a week after another Saudi-led airstrike hit a busy fish market and the entrance to Yemen’s largest hospital, Al-Thawra, in the port city of Hodeidah — reportedly killed 55 civilians and wounding 170 more.

Take action: Ask World Leaders to Support Children Affected by Conflict and Crisis by Ensuring Safe Schools

For over three years, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition against Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, and the civilian death toll is continuing to rise.

At least 10,000 Yemeni people have been killed since the war broke out in March 2015, and the UN estimates that around 8.4 million people are living on the brink of famine.

And as the civilian death toll in Yemen continues to rise, international allies of Saudi Arabia — including Britain — are facing renewed questions and calls to stop selling arms to the kingdom. 

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Reports now claim that the bomb used in the strike was sold to Saudi Arabia as part of a US arms deal.

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Hunt, on a visit to Washington this week, has faced questions about the future of the UK’s ties to Saudi Arabia — and Britain’s reaction to the school bus bombing. 

“Saudi Arabia is a close military ally and they help us keep the streets of Britain safe and so that relationship is very important to us,” he said on Tuesday, answering questions after a speech in Washington. “It doesn’t mean we don’t raise concerns about what happened with the Saudi foreign minister Al-Jubeir, as I did last week.”

“We look at that humanitarian situation with a huge amount of concern,” he said. “It’s impossible to see the reports of what happened in that bus in Yemen without being very concerned about what is happening.” 

In an interview with the BBC, he was also asked whether he would be discussing the issue with the US administration during his visit. 

“As far as Britain’s concerned, when it comes to arms sales we have one of the strictest regimes in the world and we constantly review whether the arms agreements that we make when we sell them, whether they are being adhered to,” he said. 

“But both for the United States and the United Kingdom, we want to make sure that our allies are conducting their activities in a way that we can defend to our own publics,” he said. “But also respecting that they are allies. And so we will have these discussions, but very often they will be frank discussions in private, rather than megaphone diplomacy.” 

The arms trade with Saudi Arabia is worth billions of pounds to the UK. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest single export market, after licences worth £1.12 billion were reportedly granted in 2017. 

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And since 2015, Saudi Arabia has reportedly placed orders for more than £3.75 billion worth of British defence equipment, primarily bombs and fighter aircraft. 

Saudi Arabia is the US and UK’s largest trading partner for heavy conventional weapons, making up 18% of the US' total military exports, and 49% of the UK’s arms exports in 2017, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 

Campaigners in Britain have long called for a halt to the arms trade with the kingdom. 

One campaign earlier this year, #DontBombChildren, was launched by Save the Children to coincide with the arrival of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in the UK in March. 

Posters of silhouettes of small children appeared at iconic landmarks in London, while a life-size statue of a Yemeni child was also placed outside parliament. The statue was also photographed at Tower Bridge, Camden Market, and Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital. 

The locations were chosen as symbolic of the playgrounds, hospitals, schools, and markets where children are being killed and injured in Yemen. 

Save the Children said at the time that the campaign aimed to serve as a “reminder of the dangers that Yemeni children face every day and the risks of British-made bombs fuelling the violence.” 

In 2017, Global Citizen joined forces with Save the Children to see Saudi Arabia and its allies held to account for killing and maiming children in Yemen — as it was previously the only party to the conflict not to be named. 

The campaign launched a petition calling on the United Nations to list Saudi Arabia in the UN’s Annual Children and Armed Conflict report — a list of parties within the Yemen conflict that the UN has verified as being responsible for committing grave violations against children. 

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The report, released in October 2017, explicitly outlined that the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing of rebels in Yemen resulted in the “killing and maiming of children, with 683 child casualties.” 

The report also listed the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemeni government forces, and pro-government militia, saying that the Houthis and related rebel forces were responsible for over 400 children dead and injured during 2016. 

The situation in Yemen has been branded the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the UN, with around 22 million people — three-quarters of the country’s entire population — now in desperate need of aid and protection. 

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has also called for an “independent and prompt investigation" into the airstrike that hit the school bus. He added that all parties must “respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular the fundamental rules of distinction, proportionality, and precautions in attack.”