“Sickening Cowardice”: Now More Than Ever, Britain’s Theresa May Must be Held to Account on the Plight of Yemen’s Children

The death count from the terrorist attack on Manchester’s now sits at twenty two. Almost sixty others wounded. The sad toll from an act of shockingly brutal callousness now seems to have thankfully stopped increasing.

True to form various politicians and media pundits have swooped in to give their verdict, some more sincere than others. The notoriously unpleasant Katie Hopkins, having called for a ‘final solution‘ for British Islam, is among the worst. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s plea to actually care for those most aggrieved, now and in the future, is perhaps the most genuine.

Yet it’s Prime Minister May’s verdict that is of particular interest. Branding the intentional targeting of children as “sickening cowardice” (it is) she seems to have made a point only to trip and fall. May’s government is behind a veritable upsurge in Britain’s arms trade, seeing weapons exports continue to end up in the hands of a government known for targeting civilians, kids included. I am of course referring to Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen.

This isn’t political point scoring. Saudi Arabia’s bombardment of Yemen has killed swathes of civilians, something which will have undoubtedly involved the use of British armaments. The plight of children in this deplorable scenario has been well documented, with the casualties of war being only one side to the story. As of 2015 UNICEF believed that well over three hundred thousand Yemeni children faced malnutrition. In 2017 that figure inflated to over two million. Around a third of all civilian casualties are believed to be minors, with a reputed average of six child deaths per day.

The Prime Minister’s comments are thus problematic, at the very least. For May to remain steadfast on selling weapons to Riyadh whilst denouncing violence elsewhere is just base hypocrisy. The question is, will this be addressed?

Most likely not. At the risk of sounding cynical, Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is entrenched and long-lasting, with the UK having been a staunch supporter of the House of Saud even prior to their ultimate emergence at the head of state power. The UK has also made serious inroads into the global arms trade, commanding some four point five percent of the total world market. Weapons are big money. With the British economy already struggling over Brexit, there seems to be little chance of May’s government thinking twice over a long-lasting and distinctly lucrative relationship.

I almost feel a tad uncomfortable writing about this. Chances are I’ve ruffled some feathers already. When people are already in shock it seems almost unfair to present additional horrors for consideration. Many in the UK would argue that this is a time for unity rather than renewed dissension. The decision by the major parties to call off campaigning for next month’s general election is a case in point.

Yet this is another issue. The “additional horrors” cited above are no revelation for those actually experiencing them. The deplorable suffering and death of British children is no reason to suddenly fall silent on the suffering of those located elsewhere, especially when those commenting on the former (such as May) have a hand in exacerbating the latter. Such a position is morally indefensible. Lives are of value, regardless of their location of birth or the politics at hand. The media and indeed everyone else would do well to remember that.


Why mention the press? The fact is that the long running suffering of kids in Yemen has received a far, far lesser share of media attention than what happened recently in Manchester. Pointing this out will again no doubt make some quite angry. Yet it matters. Indeed, there’s a sinister edge to this that requires investigation.

I recall hearing back when I was a student that, when it came to the news agenda of the British press, the “life of one British citizen is worth a thousand Filipinos.” This wasn’t meant to be condoned. In fact the person telling me this was clearly not too happy. Yet the notion does contain a hard truth in terms of how the mainstream press shape the news and decide what is or what is not “newsworthy” in the eyes of their prospective audience. The reality is that to a great many some deaths do in fact matter more. The scanty reporting and muted response to Saudi Arabia’s bombardment of Yemen is a prime example.

Other journalists have testified to this in quite dramatic terms. William Dowell was himself an American reporter present during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Dowell ran into problems of his own, soon deciding that his editors operated using a “calculus of death” to determine the newsworthiness of a story. In Dowell’s view this literally meant placing greater or less value on human lives, with a “cynical rating system” ensuring that one American life was worth “fifteen Frenchmen, which were worth twenty thousand Africans, which might be worth a million Asians”.

Does this “cynical ratings system” operate now? Those who claim it doesn’t would do well to pay attention to other largely unreported calamities, not just in terms of the children of Yemen but also the record number of kids killed in Afghanistan this year. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable or callous in pointing out that such matters have gone largely unnoticed even prior to recent events at home. Judging from this simple revelation it seems Dowell’s “calculus of death” is still evident. The unwillingness of the press to bring Theresa May to account over her denouncement of “sickening cowardice” whilst she herself has a hand in the death of children elsewhere is a case in point.

This just isn’t good enough. Journalists have weighty obligations, something that requires us to entertain a notion of “newsworthiness” that goes beyond cynically calculating the value of human lives in accordance with what might presumably be of more or less interest to a specific audience. Theresa May’s comments require us to scrutinise her own policies, especially in regards to the very evident fact that they have brought hardship and death to people elsewhere.

To obfuscate here would be to kowtow to a news agenda that all too often tends to downplay the sufferings of those outside of the western world, as if such matters are (or should) be forever removed from the vaunted “public interest”. This is unacceptable. The actions of those in power should always be scrutinised, even when such scrutiny may prove unpopular.

The big picture matters. Speaking the truth is a must. And the sad truth is that Saudi Arabia’s own acts of “sickening cowardice” against children is not something Theresa May is in a hurry to condemn. Chances are it won’t even occur to her. Calls for her to do so will be met with silence. This need to change.

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Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.

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