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Tue 22 June 2021

One of Boris Johnson’s former legal advisors recalls his inability to grasp the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen

As a lawyer who advised the Government on the export of arms to the Middle East, I worked with Boris Johnson – when he was Foreign Secretary – on support for Saudi Arabia’s military action in Yemen and saw first-hand his casual attitude to Yemeni life.

We focused a great deal on the lucrative arrangements for providing war planes and bombs to Saudi Arabia, for use in Yemen – an attitude matched by our counterparts in Donald Trump’s White House, with the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia very much as one on the subject.

Johnson, like Trump, was concerned to ensure that the flow of arms to Saudi Arabia was maintained and I spent time discussing this with him in his private office. It was a grand room, as befits a grand office of state, and not one you would enter without having properly done your homework – particularly when asked to brief the Foreign Secretary about Britain’s role in what was then emerging as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

There was official concern about the numbers of Yemeni civilians being killed and a meeting was scheduled with Johnson to discuss the implications of their deaths on the legality of continued arms sales.

The law prohibits the licensing of such sales from the UK if there is a clear risk that the arms might (only might) be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law – the body of law which governs conduct in armed conflict. It permits attacks on legitimate military targets, but imposes an absolute prohibition on the targeting of civilians and mandates that actors take all feasible precautions to avoid killing or injuring them.

The Ministry of Defence had compiled a list of hundreds of potential international humanitarian law violations in Yemen, but could not identify a legitimate military target for any of of the offences it suspected had been carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. Given the oft-referenced close friendship between the UK and the Saudis, it is curious that we weren’t privy to such important information.

But Johnson wasn’t quite ready to talk about that when we arrived. He had just finished a call with a foreign minister of another country and wanted to do impressions of their accent instead. He relayed much of the conversation to us – irrelevant to what we had come to discuss and our areas of expertise – but he held forth all the same, until a senior diplomat deftly steered him back on track. 

Another day, the conflict had escalated – as had the civilian death toll – and officials went to see him again. He wasn’t quite ready to talk about Yemen then either – he wanted first to joke about Hillary Clinton falling out of her car on the way to a 9/11 memorial service.

At another meeting – my last on this issue – we discussed an air strike which resulted in an egregious number of civilian deaths. That air strike was one of many incidents giving rise to concerns that the Saudi-led coalition was conducting warfare without due regard to the law.

I have seen footage of its immediate aftermath. I write about it in hesitation, because the people killed that day were people like you and I, with so much more to their lives than the unjust circumstances of their deaths.

However, I feel it is important to convey the horror the UK contributed to, so I recount a moment in which one man tries to help by pouring the meagre remains of a bottle of water onto another who, trapped under a collapsed wall, appears to be burning alive. It is the most distressing footage I have ever seen. It is difficult to watch and conclude that the people in it are anything other than civilians and that the air strike was anything other than a war crime.

Johnson’s cavalier attitude to even the gravest of decisions was (is) dangerous – dangerous for civilians in Yemen and dangerous for British citizens whose safety overseas relies on him being on top of his brief.

His terrible failure on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe must surely lie on his conscience. The diligent civil servants who worked on her case were specialists on Iran, consular advice, on managing delicate situations with sensitive, intelligent, expert diplomacy – all for nothing when the front man lets the side down so badly. Four years after Johnson told MPs that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was teaching journalism in Iran (she categorically was not), she remains subject to a form of house arrest there – her young daughter’s childhood thus far completely overshadowed by the absence of her mother.

Trump also took a relaxed approach to what, in truth, his decisions would achieve. His last-minute designation of the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organisation was welcomed by Saudi Arabia, and framed by his Secretary of State as action against terrorism, but was met with alarm by those involved in addressing Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, who highlighted the difficulties it would cause in providing aid to the 80% of the Yemeni population who rely on it.

And the Saudis are of course in a world of their own when it comes to respect for the truth – their almost comedic denials after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their embassy in Istanbul, followed by an implausible statement that he died there in “a fist fight” being a recent case in point. They were quite the trio – Johnson, Trump and Mohammed bin Salman – with both the UK and the US united in their solidarity to the Saudis, their key ally.

But things are different now.

On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden was absolutely clear that, once he took office, the US would withdraw support for the Saudi action in Yemen. He has put his money where his mouth is, immediately.

The new President has paused all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, cut-off US support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen, undertaken to release the CIA’s unclassified files on Khashoggi’s murder, reversed the designation of the Houthis, and appointed Avril Haines director of national intelligence, Anthony Blinken Secretary of State and Samantha Power administrator of the US agency for international development – all three of whom signed a powerful letter in 2018 urging an end to US support for Saudi action in Yemen.

Biden has already overseen a markedly different approach to that of Trump and of Johnson, who must now navigate a situation in which two key allies are not in sync, and figure out which bilateral relationship is truly the ‘special’ one.

Johnson has faced pressure on this at home as well – a High Court decision on an application for judicial review of Britain’s arms sales is due imminently. If that is granted, the sales will be scrutinised in court for a second time, and it will be interesting to see how the Government will justify continued arms sales when even the Americans have stopped them.

And then there’s Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which has been admirably steadfast in saying that it would end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and rightly quick to show public support for Biden’s approach. Labour should keep the pressure on Johnson to join the growing international consensus that the humanitarian situation is unsustainable and that military action should end. With the White House showing leadership on the issue, there is a real possibility of significant change.

The UK is still a nation with significant global influence: but, with Boris Johnson at the helm, moral compass long gone, it has truly lost sight of how to use it.

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