Yemen debate

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.

Results of bombing. Picture: Mintpress News

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.

Tobias Ellwood MP

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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Select Committee reports on Yemen

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-Image result for cluster weaponsdelivered 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

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.

Picture: the Independent

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

UK personnel

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)

Human Rights

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.

The full report

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UK government soft-pedalling over the death penalty

Amnesty sets out facts of government’s reluctance to press for an end to the death penalty in some countries

The Government has been accused of “soft-pedalling” over the death penalty and seeming to make trade more important than human rights.  The charge by Amnesty International UK’s director Kate Allen (pictured in Salisbury Cathedral last year) comes as the human rights organisation released figures showing that at least 1,634 people were executed in 2015, a rise of 54% on the year before.  Despite being the highest number Amnesty has recorded since 1989, this total does not include China, where thousands were likely to have been executed but where the death penalty is a state secret.

The figures – contained in the report Death Sentences and Executions in 2015 – show that the top five executioners in the world in 2015 were China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the USA.

This “profoundly disturbing” surge in executions was largely fuelled by big increases in Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Amnesty International reported.  Amnesty International’s fears have been raised just hours after MPs on the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee said there is “plainly a perception” the Government is prioritising trade and security with China, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain above human rights.

Ms Allen said:

Like the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, we’re worried that the Government has started soft-pedalling over foreign countries’ use of the death penalty, preferring to prioritise trade with countries like China, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

Until recently the UK’s policy of seeking global abolition of capital punishment had a clear focus and strategy.  Now the death penalty’s been thrown into the pot with other concerns and it’s much harder to tell whether the Government is prioritising this life-and-death matter.

If governments in Beijing, Tehran, Islamabad and Riyadh aren’t hearing about our outrage at executions after torture and unfair trials, then the executioners are going to think they’ve got a green light to carry on killing.

We want to see the Foreign Office publishing a clear strategy for its anti-death penalty work at the earliest opportunity.”

Amnesty International’s secretary general Salil Shetty said: “Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have all put people to death at unprecedented levels, often after grossly unfair trials.”

Last year, the Foreign and Commonweatth Office’s most senior civil servant made a frank admission to MPs that human rights “is not one of our top priorities” and that the “prosperity agenda is further up the list”.

Ministers deny the issue has been downgraded but a string of trade-focused, red carpet visits to the UK by the leaders of countries with some of the worst records of rights abuses has reinforced the perception of a shift of diplomatic emphasis.  Readers of this blog will know we have been following the twists and turns of this story for some months.  We wrote to our local MP Mr John Glen last year on Saudi Arabia and the rising toll of executions by beheading or crucifixion and we received a bland reply from the FCO minister Tobias Ellwood.  Since that time more evidence has emerged of policy changes designed it seems to scale down the human rights aspects.  We noted that when George Osborne visited China to the surprise of his hosts he failed to raise the question of human rights and executions at all.  Tobias Ellwood was reported by local media as congratulating the Saudis on the progress they were making with human rights.

Human rights minister Baroness Anelay said:

I am deeply troubled by the increase in the number of reported executions in 2015, which was driven by concerning increases in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and we make our opposition well known at the highest levels to countries which continue to apply it. Our message to them is clear, the death penalty is unjust, outdated and ineffective. It also risks fuelling extremism.

Despite these concerning figures there has been progress in many countries.  It is welcome that in 2015 Fiji, the Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Suriname all abolished the death penalty.

The Foreign Office will continue to use its diplomatic network to push for progress towards the global abolition of the death penalty.

Maya Foa, of Reprieve, described the rise in executions as “extremely troubling” adding: “It is all the more disturbing, therefore, to see what the Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week described as an ‘apparent deprioritisation’ of human rights by the UK government.

Now more than ever, Britain needs to be speaking out against the grave abuses – including mass trials, torture and death sentences handed down to juveniles and political protesters – being committed by its allies.

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the primary aim of the government is trade and business with human rights coming a poor second if at all.  This overlooks the nature of ‘soft power’ and the fact that as a nation, we could be influential in humanising world affairs.  Instead, we chose to push out the red carpet for the most frightful regimes and, as the Panama papers are revealing, allow dubious individuals to buy up large parts of London using off shore tax havens.

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Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Further extraordinary developments
Tobias Ellwwod MP
Tobias Ellwood MP

Last year we wrote to our local MP Mr John Glen to ask his government to be more assertive with the Saudi government in view of their appalling human rights record.  This was prompted by the death penalty group which was concerned by the mounting tide of executions in that country.  We received a bland reply from both Mr Glen and from Mr Tobias Ellwood of the Foreign Office (FCO) saying that behind the scenes, representations were being made.

No sooner had we posted details of the letters from the two politicians, when news was received of plans to drop the requirement of ministers to obey foreign treaties.  Also, explicit reference to the abolition of the death penalty was removed from government policy.  We have in previous blogs pointed to the continuing sale of arms to Saudi Arabia despite their role in the war in Yemen.  Then came the astonishing news that British and American service personnel were present in the control centre for Saudi military actions.

All the while, the human rights record in Saudi remains dire and the year started with the mass execution of 47 people.  When Mr Ellwood was asked in Parliament to condemn the mass execution he declined to do so.  Today, we learn from the Independent newspaper that Mr Ellwood is reported in various Saudi and middle eastern newspapers as having urged Saudi Arabia to ‘do a better job at trumpeting its human rights successes’.  He was addressing the Saudi Arabian National Society for Human Rights [an English version is available] in Riyadh and added that ‘British people were unaware of the notable progress being made.’  Many human rights groups have said that Mr Ellwood’s remarks are astonishing.  FCO has denied that such remarks were made by him and the matter could easily be cleared up by publishing his speech.

Today, the Guardian newspaper published extracts from a leaked UN report into the airstrikes carried out by the Saudis on Yemen.  The report said that:

…many of the attacks involved multiple civilian objects [and that] of the 119 sorties the panel identified 146 targeted objects. There were three alleged cases of civilians fleeing residential bombings and being chased and shot at by helicopters.

So far, 5,800 people have been killed in the conflict.  On Wednesday, the leader of the opposition Mr Jeremy Corbyn asked the Prime Minister for an independent inquiry into the policy on arms exports to Saudi Arabia in view of the UN report.  As the weeks have gone by, the drip, drip of revelations, the continued sale of arms to the Saudis, the presence of our military personnel in the control centre of the Saudi operations, our help in getting a Saudi to get onto the UN’s Human Rights Council, and speeches by a FCO minister, has painted a picture of complicity in a brutal conflict in Yemen and connivance in the politics of repression in Saudi itself.

From Mr Glen there has been silence.  His column in the Salisbury Journal this week refers to the Maldives [YouTube] and his involvement and concern about human rights abuses there is of course to be welcomed and applauded.  But when, we may ask, is he going to express concern about the much greater level of human rights violations and killings taking place in Saudi Arabia and Yemen?

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Sources: The Independent; Belfast Telegraph; Amnesty International; Guardian

Arms sales and human rights

Arms sales dictating policy in Saudi Arabia

Readers of this blog will be familiar with our argument that oil and arms sales dictate our policy to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The execution of 47 people last week has caused an international outrage but not, predictably from our government.  Philip Luther of Amnesty said:

It is a bloody day when the Saudi Arabian authorities execute 47 people, some of whom were clearly sentenced to death after grossly unfair trials. Carrying out a death sentence when there are serious questions about the fairness of the trial is a monstrous and irreversible injustice. The Saudi Arabian authorities must heed the growing chorus of international criticism and put an end to their execution spree

A policy document published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2011 curiously omits mention of Saudi Arabia in its list of countries where diplomats will be seeking to ‘positively drive forward’ the government’s ultimate goal of abolishing the death penalty.  Countries such as China, the US, Iran and Belarus are among those listed, but not Saudi Arabia.

Philip Hammond the Defence Secretary said HMG was ‘disappointed’ in the actions of the Saudi authorities.  Disappointment seems to be a rather limp response to make to such an appalling act.  It was Mr Ellwood who responded to our message to John Glen MP last year in which we asked for a more robust response to the Saudi government.  Both he and Mr Glen assured us that these matters were being pursued but as the revelations keep appearing – altering the Ministerial code; dropping the death penalty abolition as a specific policy, and now the omission of Saudi from the list of countries to be targeted – we see that it is devoid of real intent.

Many human rights organisations have criticised the executions and the craven stance taken by the UK government.  Maya Foa of Reprieve said:

Saudi Arabia has consistently ranked in the world’s top five executioners, and a large proportion of beheadings carried out in the country have been for non-violent offences, including protest.

It is shocking that the Kingdom was absent from the counties targeted by the UK’s death penalty strategy over the past five years, when every other major executioner in the world – China, Iran, Iraq, the US and Pakistan – was included.

Amnesty said the omission was ‘astonishing’.

Does it matter?

Why does this matter?  Firstly, the middle east is fraught with much violence and tension.  Ministers – including the Prime minister – fulminate about the terrible events in the area controlled by IS but are noticeably reticent oven similar violence in Saudi.  Imagine the Prime Minister commenting on the latest gruesome execution IS video and saying it was ‘disappointing’.  By continuing to supply arms we are both helping to support the violence in the area and also aiding the bombing of neighbouring Yemen where women and children are dying.  Our policy should primarily be about seeking peaceful resolutions to problems not trying to sell yet more arms.

Eurofighter of the type sold to Saudi ArabiaSecondly, by being so dependent on arms sales, this becomes the main driver of our policy.  Not what is best for the region, or the people of the Saudi regime, or human rights, but what effect will it have on the bottom line of BAE Systems.  Our actions also lend them credibility.  Instead of applying pressure to encourage a more civilised approach to the Shia minority, to the rights of women and to foreign workers, we arrange for a Saudi to be elected onto the UN’s Human Rights Council and express ‘disappointment’ at mass executions.

We also lay ourselves open to charges of hypocrisy.  In seeking to promote civilised conduct around the world, to end the death penalty and stamp out torture, our approach to Saudi is both inconsistent and craven.  It weakens our international voice.

Malcolm Rifkind was interviewed on the radio and his argument was that the Saudis provide us with valuable intelligence.  Is the argument that we tolerate shocking behaviour so that – it is claimed – we get some intelligence?  This seems rather thin since no doubt the Saudis receive comparable intelligence from us.

The arms sales tail seems to wag the policy dog and by our actions we are not helping the Kingdom to adapt to the modern world.

Continue reading “Arms sales and human rights”

Foreign Office drops reference to the abolition of the death penalty

In a previous post (20 July) we reported on the correspondence we had with Mr Glen MP concerning the government’s policy towards Saudi Arabia.  This was prompted by the increasing number of executions and public floggings taking place in that country.  Both are at high levels and are greater than the previous year.  We noted that the president of France had made public statements condemning this practice.  We might also have noted that Sweden has suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Mr Glen forwarded a letter from a FCO minister Mr Tobias Ellwood saying that these matters were raised with the Saudi authorities and that it was a ‘human rights priority for the UK government’.  Because it was part of Sharia law they did not anticipate change in the near future however.

There the matter might have rested.  But on 3 August it was reported widely in the press that the FCO has dropped any explicit reference to the abolition of the death penalty.  In response to the cuts, they are relabelling its six global thematic priorities of which the abolition of the death penalty world wide was one.  There are now to be three, relating to human rights; democratic values and the rule of law. Reference to the death penalty has gone. The ‘human rights countries of priority’ is to be replaced with the more anodyne ‘human rights priority countries’.

We noted at the end of the last blog that the reason for the lack of open criticism by the government was almost certainly connected with arms sales to Saudi.

Then, in the current issue of Private Eye (6 August No 1397) they report that Tobias Ellwood had accepted Saudi hospitality to a attend a £6,000 a head fact-finding visit organised by the arms industry lobby group UK Defence Forum.   This took place in 2013 when there were bribery allegations concerning Saudi defence deals and the defence giant EADS.  The Private Eye  piece was in connection with Mr Tobias’s complaint at having to ‘watch the pennies’ on his MP and ministerial salary.

So in just over a week after sending us the letter, the FCO seems to have downgraded its policy on the death penalty.  This is deeply disappointing and it seems strange that Mr. Ellwood appeared unaware that the policy was to change only days after sending his reply to us.  We shall be raising these matters with Mr. Glen.

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