House of Commons debates the war in Yemen
On 12 January 2017 the House of Commons debated the war in Yemen for the second time in less than a month having already had a debate on it on 19 December. This has been called the ‘forgotten war’ for some time since all the media and political attention has been focused on Syria. So it is to be welcomed that this war is now getting its share of attention. This was an opposition debate led by Stephen Twigg MP.
This is a complex war difficult to summarise but essentially the two main actors are the Saudis and the Houthi rebels. Both have committed atrocities: the Houthis with massacres, the use of child soldiers and shelling across the border into Saudi territory. The Saudis by bombing civilian targets and using cluster weapons. The December debate focused on the use of these weapons, supplied by the UK before their use was banned. One thing we learned from that debate was that the UK government has offered to exchange cluster weapons for more modern Paveway bombs but it appears the Saudis have not taken up this offer.
To an extent it is a proxy war: part of the long-running Sunni/Shia feud being fought between Iran and Saudi. There are also tribal politics mixed in. Although the role of the Houthi rebels was criticised, the point was made that it was we who were arming the Saudis and RAF personnel involved at the command and control centre.
It was lengthy running to just under 3 hours. A number of points were made. A major concern was the allegations of abuses against International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the slow pace of investigations (‘glacial’ was the word used by Stephen Twigg) by the Saudis into them. Various figures were bandied about but over a hundred seems to be the consensus but only 9 investigations have been carried out in 14 months.
There were many tributes to DFID and its contribution to Yemen but as Stephen Twigg noted:
There is a paradox at the heart of the UK’s approach to Yemen: generous on aid but we contribute to the conflict with our arms sales.
It is interesting that during the writing of this blog, the headline of the Mail on Sunday was the result of a survey which apparently revealed that 78% of people want to end overseas aid and put the funds into the health service which is experiencing a crisis at present. The Coalition government and now the Conservatives must be praised for maintaining the levels of overseas aid despite considerable pressure from some of their backbenchers and some of the media.
Chris White MP – who is chair of the Arms Export Control Committee – said that the UK should be an example to the rest of the world in terms of our licensing regime. He reminded the House of rule 2(c) which ‘forbids the authorisation of arms sales if there is a clear risk of a violation of international humanitarian law’.
It is of course welcome that the House of Commons should have given such time to this debate on Yemen – indeed as we’ve noted the second in less than a month. The government has had something of a free ride, able to do little to end the conflict and carry on allowing our arms to be sold to Saudi – some £3.3bn worth so far. It seemed to be SNP (Scottish National Party) members who were the most forthright in condemning the arms sales. Tasmina Ahmend-Sheikh saying:
If Saudi Arabia and Iran are the puppeteers, we are the quartermasters
There were several calls for a peace process but one seems unlikely at present. It was alleged that the Saudis are resisting the process, a claim denied by Tobias Ellwood the minister in FCO.
The link between our sale of arms and the devastating effects of those weapons on the people of Yemen although made, was not strongly emphasised. Part of the problem of course is that although the Conservatives are in power now, many arms sales were made as well during the Labour administrations. So both parties are tainted.
The government is in something of a bind. The value of our exports to the region and to Saudi is considerable. One is reminded of the old adage – variously attributed to John Maynard-Keynes or John Paul Getty – that if you owe the bank a million pounds you have a problem, if you owe the bank a hundred million pounds, the bank has a problem. Because billions of pounds of weapons are sold, we are not in a position to exert much control: we are too dependent on the business. One can imagine polite words being spoken but it was clear from the debate that the Saudis think they can win this so are in no haste to agree peace terms and little more than token efforts are made to limit sales of arms. Such is the murky world of arms sales anyway, that brokers can quite easily circumvent controls certainly for the more every day weapons.
In the December debate, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon insisted the Saudis were:
on the cusp of a major reform programme of its economy and society
The debate shone a light on the problems of the country and also on the pusillanimous nature of our foreign policy. Speaker after speaker referred to the terrible state the country was in and the enormous distress of its residents as a result of the war. It was interesting to note that at least two of the MPs said they were born there presumably from when it was known as Aden. Worries were expressed about ISIS moving in.
But the fundamental moral issue of our sale of arms to a country which uses them to wreak such havoc on another nation was not rigorously pursued. The FCO and the MoD would not be seriously disturbed by this debate.
It also provides a clue to life once we leave the EU. There will be a major push to achieve business with whichever countries we can and the morality of our dealings will not get a look in. It’s good for business they will say but not good for human rights.
The debate ended with calls for an urgent independent (ie not by the Saudis who are dragging their feet) investigation into reports of breaches of IHL on both sides of the conflict.
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