Damning criticism of government’s blind eye to arms sales to the Saudi Arabians
Recommends suspension of arms sales to the Saudis
Followers of this blog will be aware of the attention we have been drawing to the war in Yemen and our government’s role in it. It started by accident with a letter to our MP Mr John Glen who forwarded a bland reply from a Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood. The answers began to unravel quite quickly when it was revealed that, for example, far from reigning in the Saudi’s, we were promoting their membership of the UN’s Human Rights Council.
Now the International Development and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committees have produced a lengthy report which is extremely critical on several different levels. The chair’s summary remarks were:
The UK led the way in establishing international humanitarian law to govern the sale of arms. The conflict in Yemen has raised serious concerns that we are not showing equal determination in ensuring that these are respected.
During this inquiry we have heard evidence from respected sources that weapons made in the UK have been used in contravention of International Humanitarian Law. The Government can no longer wait and see and must now take urgent action, halting the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition until we can be sure that there is no risk of violation.
We call on the Government to continue the UK’s long-standing commitment to IHL and lead the international community in establishing a strong, independent inquiry. The circumstances surrounding incidents in Yemen, such as allegations of the use of cluster bombs, must be firmly established and send a clear message to all combatants in Yemen that human rights must be respected.
The current system for overseeing the sale of arms must be improved. At present we do not have sufficient transparency to hold licensing decisions to account or the confidence that the benchmarks ensuring human rights law is respected are high enough. This must be addressed immediately.
Backbench committees do valuable and largely unsung work in the House of Commons and provide an opportunity for members to question government activities more closely than they are able to do in the House itself.
The background situation in the Yemen is dire. The UN categorises it as a level 3 crisis which is the most severe. UNICEF say that 1,211 children have been killed and 1,650 injured, both are likely to be under-estimates in view of the difficulty in reporting. The economy and health care systems are on the verge of collapse. Over a million people are internally displaced.
Britain however continues to profit from the war by supplying huge amounts of weaponry to the Saudis. Between April and December 2015 we supplied £1.7bn worth of aircraft and a further £1bn of air-delivered bombs. More shockingly is that, although we are no longer supplying cluster munitions, previously supplied ones have turned up on the ground. These weapons kick out tens or hundreds of sub-munitions which saturate an area the size of several football fields. Duds can be dangerous to children especially who can lose limbs or be blinded if they pick them up.
Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have provided evidence to the FCO about the use of these weapons.
The report makes interesting reading most particularly concerning the UK government attitudes to the conflict. It contrasts the FCO’s attitude to the documented evidence it is presented with on the Yemen by NGOs including Amnesty and HRW, which it ignores, with that from Syria where evidence is accepted. David Mepham, the UK director of HRW said in evidence:
I was at a meeting with [the Foreign Secretary] several months ago when I gave him copies of our report and said, “These are the GPS coordinates; these are the strikes; these are the markets and schools that were hit.” Therefore, he has that evidence. The Foreign Office has had that evidence for months. It is extraordinary that the line comes back that they do not have evidence, when that evidence has been shared with them for a considerable period of time.
The line from the government is that the UK has ‘the most robust arms control export regimes in the world’. The committee heard evidence of how long this robust arms control regime took to make its decisions: a matter of days. The hundreds of licences take around 20 or 25 days to approve. In comparison with other government decision making, this is merely the blink of an eye. It seems fairly obvious that little control is exercised. No licence has been refused.
In the face of the hundreds of incidents of schools, marriage ceremonies, factories and hospitals being hit by bombing, the UK government accepts the answers given it by the Saudi government. The committee was sceptical at FCO reliance on Saudi assurances and said:
We are not convinced that Saudi Arabia is best placed to investigate reports of IHL breaches and their lack of progress with reporting findings only confirms our concerns that they are obstructing progress. Of 185 incidents reported by UN, HRW and AI, only 9 investigations have taken place
Our involvement is not just limited to supplying weapons but military and civilian personnel are also involved in the control centre and elsewhere. The claim is that they are not directing the actual bombing. The committee were not convinced by this argument.
It is impossible, on the basis of the evidence that is before us to claim plausibly that the United Kingdom is not involved. We provide the aircraft and the bombs. This level of involvement without being party to a conflict is unprecedented. This is an area where there is much confusion and greater clarity is needed. (para 75)
The committee considered our political role in this conflict and our supposed commitment to an international rules based order. We were now in a tricky position. UK’s support for the Saudi led coalition primarily through the sale of arms and in the face of violations of International Humanitarian Law is inconsistent with our global leadership role in the world. The very rules the UK championed – represented by the Arms Trade Treaty – are at risk of unravelling.
The committee heard evidence that the arms companies were a huge source of employment and that if we did not supply the weapons, others would. An argument which could easily be applied to slavery.
For the sake of weapons sales, the government has become ensnared with a war which is fast becoming a humanitarian disaster. Our involvement is much to close for comfort and attempts to dissemble and hide the truth are at risk of unravelling. We also risk losing the moral argument as well. It is difficult for us to criticise the Russians and Syrians for their barbaric activities in Aleppo and elsewhere, when we are only slightly removed from doing the same things in Yemen. So far the government has been lucky: all eyes are on Syria and there are few reports emerging from Yemen. But this report is a welcome spotlight on the unsavoury and ultimately foolish activities by our government in that country. They recommend ending arms sales to the Saudis.
On 26 October the House of Commons debated the question of withdrawing support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The intention was to send a message to the government that MP’s do not want to support a war without a UN investigation into breaches of international humanitarian law. Labour MPs did not attend and the vote was lost. Mr Glen voted against the motion. So the carnage continues.
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