War in Yemen
For most of this year we have been commenting on the war in Yemen and the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. We wrote to the Salisbury MP John Glen, who replied enclosing a bland statement from the Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood. We have noted the government’s activities in getting the Saudi’s onto the UN’s Human Rights Council and the continued supply of arms to the Saudis despite their use in Yemen on civilian targets, schools and medical facilities. We have also noted the steady softening of policies to make it easier – it is believed – for arms companies to ply their trade. The Telegraph reported in an article in February, the difference between Syria and Yemen. In the former country, bombing of a MSF hospital led to outrage by press and politicians in the UK: by contrast, bombing of MSF hospitals in Yemen is greeted by a deafening silence :
Alas, this is not merely about Western indifference but about complicity and collusion. Last October, Britain and the US successfully blocked plans for a UN independent investigation into potential war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. This was a unique opportunity to hold all sides of the conflict accountable for their actions. Instead, Saudi Arabia has been allowed to investigate itself through its own internal commission. (24 Feb 2016)
Then, on Thursday 21st July when parliament rose, there was a curious statement issued by the FCO. It has been forced to retract numerous written and oral statements to parliament which said ministers had assessed that Saudi Arabia was not in breach of international humanitarian law in Yemen.
The admission led to calls by the Liberal Democrats for an investigation into Saudi behaviour in Yemen and a suspension of UK arms sales. The Liberal Democrats have repeatedly claimed that the Saudi military campaign has targeted civilians. We also drew attention in a previous blog to the presence of British service personnel in Saudi control rooms. The Foreign Office said the incorrect statements – made by three different ministers, some as far back as six months ago – were errors and did not represent an attempt to mislead MPs over its assessment of the Saudi campaign.
It stressed that other written answers had made clear that the UK government had made no assessment of whether the Saudis were in breach of humanitarian law.
The last day of parliament is a favourite time to slip out inconvenient statements since there is no time for questions or debate to take place. The FCO simply said it had been reviewing the correspondence.
The government is facing a court case arguing that it should ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Guardian newspaper said:
In its written answer published on Thursday, the Foreign Office said written answers in February 2016 had stated: “We have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL (international humanitarian law) by the coalition.” The correction said these should have stated: “We have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition.”
The Foreign Office also corrected a written answer by the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who stated on 4 January 2016: “I regularly review the situation with my own advisers and have discussed it on numerous occasions with my Saudi counterpart. Our judgment is that there is no evidence that IHL has been breached, but we shall continue to review the situation regularly.”
This is something of a volt face and to issue such a statement on the last day of parliament is shameful. It achieved its object however with next to no media coverage. Why does it matter? We are currently suffering a severe threat from ISIS with a recent outrage in Nice said to be inspired by the group. Saudi Arabia’s activities in Yemen, supported by US and UK weapons, personnel and political cover, provide an ideal recruiting ground for this terrorist group. At present all eyes are on Syria but how long will it be before our activities in Yemen come under the spotlight?
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