With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on an announcement that was made in Riyadh earlier today on the conflict in Yemen. In 2014, Houthi forces and those loyal to former President Saleh took over the capital, Sana’a, and forced out the Hadi Government. Houthi forces have subsequently attacked Saudi territory, shelling border villages daily and killing Saudi civilians. A 10-country Saudi-led coalition intervened to restore the Hadi Government, to deter further Houthi aggression and to defend the Saudi border. United Nations Security Council resolution 2216 condemned the Houthis’ actions. The United Kingdom fully supports both the coalition and the right of Saudi Arabia to defend itself. Instability in Yemen, where there is a long-standing al-Qaeda presence and a growing threat from Daesh—seen tragically in Aden this weekend—threatens not just the Gulf but our security in western Europe.
Concerns have been raised in this House and by non-governmental organisations about our export of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. There have been allegations about breaches of international humanitarian law. As we operate one of the strictest arms export control regimes in the world, we take any such allegations very seriously and do our best to ensure that they are properly investigated by the coalition.
Following the air strike on the Great Hall in Sana’a on 26 October this year, for example, I spoke to the Saudi Defence Minister, the Foreign Secretary spoke to his counterpart, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), travelled to Riyadh to underline our concerns in person. The coalition’s joint incidents assessment team—the JIAT—subsequently announced interim findings within a week. The coalition committed to review its rules of engagement and its command and control systems, and to take action against those held responsible. We acknowledge the progress they have made and look forward to the completed investigation of that incident.
The coalition continues to investigate other allegations. The findings of eight investigations were announced on 4 August and a further five on 6 December. We are pressing the coalition to complete all the remaining investigations as quickly as possible.
One specific allegation that UK-supplied cluster munitions were used in January this year was raised in this House on 24 May. The UK signed the convention on cluster munitions in 2008 and has not supplied any such weapons to Saudi Arabia since 1989—over a quarter of a century ago. Our initial view, as set out by the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), and based on the information we held at the time, was that a UK weapon had not been used, but we committed to analyse the allegation and to seek a full investigation by the coalition.
That investigation has now concluded. The coalition confirmed earlier today that a limited number of BL755 cluster munitions that were exported from the UK in the 1980s were dropped in Yemen, including by a coalition aircraft in the incident alleged by Amnesty International not far from the Saudi border. The coalition, whose members are not parties to the convention, has said that the munitions were used against a legitimate military target and did not therefore contravene international humanitarian law. However, Saudi Arabia has now confirmed that it will not further use BL755 cluster munitions. I welcome that.
This particular instance shows that, in complete contrast to Russian and Syrian air strikes, where allegations are made, and with our support, the Saudi-led coalition is prepared to investigate thoroughly, to publish the findings and to take action where appropriate. I assure the House that we will continue to keep current sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies under review, in accordance with our arms export criteria. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. We are all deeply concerned about the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the dire humanitarian situation it has caused. As the House is aware, there have been widespread allegations that both sides in the conflict have violated international law. The latest revelation that UK-made cluster munitions have been used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is deeply worrying. Not only are such weapons immediately dangerous, but they come with a toxic legacy, lying on battlefields and threatening civilians, especially children, long after a conflict has ended.
In 2008, the previous Labour Government signed the convention on cluster munitions. The strikes that the Secretary of State has described today amount to the first confirmed use of UK-made cluster bombs since that date. Will the Secretary of State tell the House when he was first made aware of the possible use of such weapons by the coalition in Yemen? Why has it taken so long to confirm that those weapons were used?
A few days ago, the Obama Administration blocked the sale of guided-munitions kits over concerns about civilian casualties. That followed the United States blocking a sale of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. The Foreign Secretary said that the test for continued British arms sales
“is whether those weapons might be used in a commission of a serious breach of international humanitarian law.”
I note that the Defence Secretary confirmed that a limited number of cluster munitions supplied by this country were dropped in Yemen by a coalition aircraft. Although the cluster munitions were exported in the 1980s, will the Government commit to examining whether their current policy needs to be changed? There have been wholly unacceptable actions, and this country cannot sit on its hands.
The Government have consistently rejected calls for an independent, United Nations-led investigation into possible breaches of humanitarian and international law in Yemen. In the light of what we have learnt today, I implore the Government to heed calls from Opposition Members, as well as from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the International Development Committee, to have an inquiry. We need such an inquiry so that we can have independent verification of the actions of both sides in this conflict.
Finally, on the humanitarian situation, will the Secretary of State set out what action is being taken to help the 14 million people in need of urgent food and the 13 million Yemenis who lack access to clean water? In particular, we would like to know what is being done to help those children who are suffering so desperately in this conflict.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. We all want to see this conflict brought to an end, and I hope we would be even-handed about that; more than 90 Saudi civilians have lost their lives in this conflict, through shelling over the border into Saudi Arabia, and more than 500, including women and children, have been injured. It is important that those things are set alongside other allegations of civilian casualties in Yemen itself.
The hon. Gentleman asked when we first became aware of this allegation. We were made aware of it in the spring. It was brought to the Floor of this House in May, and our analysis began. I wrote back to Amnesty at the end of June telling it that we had commenced work on our own analysis, but that could take us only so far, as the investigation itself was a matter for the Saudi authorities. That investigation continued throughout the autumn and has concluded only in the past few days. We, too, have been frustrated by the length of time it has taken, but the investigation has been carried out by the Saudis and it has now got us to the transparent admission that has been made this morning.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the United States stopping the supply of munitions, and we should be careful here; the US has stopped only one munitions licence, and it continues to supply combat aircraft, attack helicopters and other munitions to Saudi Arabia. Only one licence has been paused. As he has described, we have a different process—an arms control process that we keep under continuous review. He asked what our current policy on cluster munitions weapons is. It is exactly the same as it was left under the Labour Government: we oppose the use of cluster munitions. Let me make it very clear to the House that we are signatories of and parties to that convention, and we oppose the use of cluster munitions. We have made that very clear to the Saudi authorities and we therefore welcome their announcement today that they will no longer use cluster munitions. That is a result from this investigation and the pressure we have been putting on them.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked me about an independent inquiry. We have been clear throughout that an allegation such as this is, first, a matter for the Saudi authorities and the coalition authorities to investigate. They have shown through this process that they are able to do that. They have investigated, and they have today announced the findings and taken action as a result.
Have the Saudis explained why they used these British-supplied weapons, presumably in the knowledge that it would cause considerable embarrassment to the British Government? What plans do the Saudis have to dispose of their remaining stocks?
The Saudis have made it clear that they used these munitions in a border area—just a few kilometres from the Saudi border—inside Yemen and they used them against a legitimate military target that may have been responsible for some of the attacks and deaths they had been suffering on their side of the border. They therefore state that, as they are not party to the convention, the use of these cluster munitions does not contravene international law. As for stocks, they have made it clear that they are not going to use UK-supplied cluster munitions in future, and we should all welcome that.
Scottish National party Members have been clear for many, many months that there have been undeniable violations of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in its conflict in Yemen. There is overwhelming evidence that the Saudis have been failing to conduct military operations lawfully, a situation that caused the US to join the Netherlands and Germany in suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia very recently. Once again, the Saudi regime stands accused of routinely using cluster bombs against the Yemeni people; that is a weapon even this Government describe as “unjustifiable” because it is designed to kill and injure civilians. Today’s revelations are not particularly new, but unless the Government act immediately to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia the court of public opinion will find them guilty of collusion in violations of international humanitarian law.
I have a couple of questions: will the Secretary of State tell the House when he first saw the analysis confirming the UK cluster bomb? Is The Guardian article today correct in saying that he first saw it a month ago? If so, why is this House finding out only now, after it appeared in the press? His statement says that the cluster bombs were used against legitimate military targets and therefore did not contravene international humanitarian law, but how can we continue to do business with a regime that routinely uses cluster bombs against civilian populations? This country is a signatory to the treaty, which obliges us to stop other people using such munitions. Finally, what does a regime have to do—how many breaches of international humanitarian law must it commit?—before this Government deem it an unacceptable partner to deal in arms with?
First, I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman was listening, as the United States has not suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia—he is incorrect about that. The US has suspended one sale of munitions, but it continues to sell munitions generally to Saudi Arabia, and to supply aircraft and attack helicopters. Secondly, there is no evidence that cluster munitions have been routinely used in Yemen—on the contrary, this allegation stood out for what it is. It has been thoroughly investigated and, as a result of that investigation and of our pressure, we now have an undertaking that Saudi Arabia will not use cluster munitions of this kind in the future and indeed that it is now considering becoming a party to the convention.
The hon. Gentleman asked when I first became aware of the analysis that we were doing. My hon. Friend the then Minister for Defence Procurement told the House in May that we would look hard at this allegation, and we began our analysis, but of course we were not investigating this allegation; only the coalition could investigate it, because only the coalition had access to all the information that would be needed to see whether this particular allegation was justified. I concede that the investigation has taken a long time, but we now have the result, and we have the admission from the Saudi authorities that cluster munitions were used, together with the undertaking that they will not be used in future.
In a word, yes. The Saudis are seeing villages being shelled on a daily basis from across their border. I have yet to hear any Opposition Member condemn that shelling or take any note of the innocent lives that have been lost on the Saudi side of the border, along with, of course, the innocent lives that have been lost in the conflict in Yemen. Absolutely, Saudi Arabia has the right to defend itself.
I am glad that Yemen is being discussed again in the House today, but I am sad and disappointed that we are doing so for these reasons. Of course I accept the assurances given by the Minister, and I know he will ensure that the Saudi Arabian Government will also keep to their promise, but what the people of Yemen need over the next few days is a ceasefire. We are seeing bombs, famine and cholera, and a country starving to death. It desperately needs that ceasefire. The Prime Minister said that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has done so much work on this issue, was in Riyadh yesterday. Can we therefore be given any further information as to how we can get this ceasefire, so that the aid can start getting through to save the people of Yemen before it is too late?
The right hon. Gentleman’s approach is very constructive. I know of his interest: he chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen. We are trying, as a Government, to do two things. First, to bring about the ceasefire that he seeks and we have all sought in Yemen, by getting the parties together. In the end, there has to be some kind of political settlement in Yemen, and we have been working towards that end.
Secondly, there is the issue that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), was working on in Riyadh just yesterday. We urgently need to get the ports, including Hudaydah, properly open so that we can get humanitarian aid in—particularly for the civilian population, who so desperately need it now.
Yes. Saudi Arabia is a key partner in our fight against terrorism. We depend on each other’s intelligence. There are terrorist plots to this country of which we have been forewarned by Saudi Arabia. It is essential for our own security that we keep our relationship with Saudi Arabia in good repair.
I am sorry to say this, but for those of us with long memories, this is a reminder of the sort of discussions we used to have on arms to Iraq. Eventually, through the Scott inquiry, we found that Ministers had misled us; I will not put it any stronger than that. Those who were here at that time should reflect on the kind of answers that were given to us. We knew what was going on in Iraq. We know what is going on in Yemen. How can we possibly support continuing to send arms to Saudi Arabia that are being used in that country?
As somebody who was here part of the time during that process, I certainly recall the very close attention that the House eventually paid to the sale of arms to Iraq. We have, partly as a result of exactly what happened in the 1980s, a very tough arms export control regime. We keep our arms sales under continuous review. We weigh up each successive licence when it is brought before Ministers. But we also need to be very clear that Saudi Arabia has the right to defend itself and that it is quite legitimately answering the call of the legitimate Government of Yemen in coming to their aid.
Earlier, I was a little surprised to hear that it is almost three decades since we last sold cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. It was also heartening to hear that it has agreed to use them no longer. Will my right hon. Friend say whether, since we signed the convention in 2008, any UK personnel have been involved in supporting continued maintenance or given other support to enable the Saudis to use their cluster munitions?
I am sure that everyone in the House would condemn the murder of Saudi civilians as they do Yemeni civilians, but what we are talking about is the sale of UK weapons to Saudi. How many times have cluster munitions been dropped? Have they been dropped on any occasions by UK-supplied aircraft? Is the UK satisfied that all those targets were legitimate military targets, and what was the UK involvement in the targeting?
We are only aware of this single allegation that has now been fully investigated by the Saudi authorities: a single allegation that cluster munitions were used in this particular incident around the turn of the year. As the Saudis have made clear today, they had been dropped by a coalition aircraft. I am sorry; what was the right hon. Gentleman’s second question?
The Saudi authorities have said today that these munitions were used against a legitimate military target in the border area on the Yemeni side of the Saudi border. On UK involvement, we are not involved in approving or selecting targets for the coalition in Yemen.
Iran, North Korea, Cuba: we see what happens when countries are shunned by the international community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is positive engagement through our diplomatic service with our ally, Saudi Arabia, that will influence this process—not shunning it, as some on the Labour Benches suggest?
Exactly. There is nothing to be gained from shunning or boycotting Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of enormous social and economic reforms. As well as being a key security, trading and investment partner in our own country, Saudi Arabia is now on the cusp of a major reform programme of its economy and society. We ought to be playing our part in that rather than constantly cavilling from the sidelines.
Will the Secretary of State be very clear? On what specific date did the Saudis inform him or his other ministerial colleagues that they had in fact used UK cluster munitions in Yemen? Given the wide range of other allegations that still do not have any answers—in fact, Médecins sans Frontières is already questioning some of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team investigations —why should we trust that Saudi Arabia has in fact conducted operations lawfully and appropriately?
The official confirmation about this particular allegation has come today—this afternoon—from Riyadh. I thought it right that Parliament should be informed as soon as that announcement was made in Riyadh. Other allegations are outstanding and we continue to press the Saudi authorities to get those investigations wrapped up, publish the findings and then take action if there are weaknesses in their command and control procedures, to get them remedied. It is only through that that they will continue to demonstrate that the assurances they give us and their other allies are properly valid.
What analysis has the Defence Secretary made of the humanitarian consequences of the illicit redistribution of cluster munitions, including BL755, from chaotic, failed and post-conflict states, on civilian populations throughout the middle east and north Africa, and much further afield?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, but it is simply not the case that these British-made cluster munitions were used against a legitimate military target. They were dropped on farmland in northern Yemen, creating de facto minefields that have killed and injured civilians. It has taken more than six months for the Saudi-led coalition to admit using them. Why does the Secretary of State now give it the benefit of the doubt over their use when such breaches of international humanitarian law are being alleged?
I have seen no evidence that the dropping of this particular munition has resulted in any civilian casualties. On the contrary, this was a munition that, from all accounts, had not in fact exploded—probably because of its obsolescence; it was a very old weapon. However, if the hon. Lady has evidence that any civilians have been killed or injured, we would very much like to see it.
As I have made clear, the investigation has taken a while. We have continued to press the Saudis on the fact that when something such as this is alleged, they need to be as transparent as possible, get on with the investigation and reassure their allies by simply publishing the findings, and, if something went wrong, then admitting it went wrong and putting it right. That is not what happens when we consider the Russian bombing of completely innocent civilians in Aleppo.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement to the House today. Will he say a few words on the regional situation that has led to this conflict? Clearly, the Iranian invasion in Yemen is causing many of the issues. While he is talking about the regional situation, will he join me in offering condolences to the family of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Ambassador Karlov, who was tragically murdered today? Does he agree that, just because we condemn Russian violence in Aleppo, that does not mean we support other violence against Russia in other parts of the world?
I am sure the House will join my hon. Friend and me in condemning the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey—a shocking act involving a diplomat, who should otherwise, of course, enjoy proper protection, and whose murder does not bring any conflict in the middle east closer to resolution. There are, however, too many states in the middle east that are acting beyond their borders—such as Iran, clearly involved behind the scenes in Yemen in prolonging a conflict that only perpetuates the suffering of the Yemeni people.
I commend the Defence Secretary for making a statement rather than being dragged here to answer an urgent question. That is an important part of the way we do our business, and I commend him for it.
I support what the Defence Secretary says about Saudi Arabia having the right to defend itself, but surely not at any cost and not in any way—that is all we are trying to get at. When the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who is an honourable man, and who I do not think for an instant wanted to mislead the House, said in May that, based
“on all the information available to us, including sensitive coalition operational reporting, we assess that no UK-supplied cluster weapons have been used”—[Official Report, 24 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 401.]
had he been lied to by our coalition allies, and, if so, can we really trust anything the Saudis say today?
No, as I made clear, that was his view at the time, based on the only information that we had available. That was long before the investigation that has concluded today had properly started. That was the best information he had at the time.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, yes, the purpose of international humanitarian law is to recognise that states do have the right to defend themselves, but they have to do so in a way that is necessary and proportionate, that avoids hitting the sick or the wounded and that properly distinguishes between combatants and non-combatants. That is the basis of international humanitarian law. Now, the Saudis believe—he may not accept this—that, in this particular instance, they did respect international humanitarian law.
I do not have to hand—and I am not sure, indeed, that we still have—the records from right back to the 1980s as to exactly how many cluster munitions were exported. I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend that I am not so much of an expert as to know the precise obsolescence of this particular weapon. I am told it would have been getting pretty obsolete now, but if he will allow me, I will write to him on both those technical points.
May I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement? When I was on the Defence Committee, we, along with the Chairman, who is sitting here as well, attended a joint meeting of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which some of the Ministers here were at as well. We were assured that if evidence was proven to be true, action would be taken. The proof has been provided by the Minister today in his statement. What action—what sanctions—will be taken against Saudi Arabia? Is it too much to ask that the blanket, indiscriminate bombing of Yemeni civilians—the murder of innocents—should stop immediately?
As I have made clear throughout this evening, there are innocents being killed on both sides in this terrible conflict, and there are Saudi innocent civilians who are being killed by Houthis through the shelling and constant attacks across the Saudi-Yemeni border. The hon. Gentleman asks what action we are taking. We are the ones who have pressed for this allegation to be properly investigated, and although it may not satisfy him, we have the result today—we have a decision by the Saudi Government that they will no longer use cluster munition weapons. That is a result for us.
What implications would it have for Britain if we did not have a close relationship with Saudi Arabia?
We would certainly be weakened in our fight against terrorism. Our security services would lose the co-operation we have with the Saudi authorities. But more than that, Saudi is an investor in our country, it is a key trade partner of ours in the Gulf, and it is an important ally in securing the stability we all want to see in the middle east.
The Secretary of State continues to use the word “allegation”, but this is no longer an allegation—it is a proven fact that a British cluster bomb has been used in the conflict in Yemen. Given that it has taken seven months for the Saudi Arabian authorities to, in his words, be “transparent”, is he honestly saying that the Government’s sanction on Saudi Arabia is merely to accept its reassurance?
The hon. Gentleman is right that from today we should probably describe this as a fact rather than an allegation. I was calling it an allegation because that is what it was when it was first brought before this House back in May, but now we have the confirmation from Saudi Arabia that coalition aircraft did drop one of these cluster munitions around the turn of the year. As far as sanctions are concerned, it is this country, as I have said, that has pressed for all these allegations—some of them are still allegations—to be properly investigated, for the findings to be published and, where necessary, for evidence to be provided by the Saudi coalition authorities that changes have been made in their command-and-control, rules-of-engagement or targeting procedures. Those are the results that we want to see.
Yes. The key now is get aid into the country, and that means reopening the ports that have been damaged in the fighting—particularly Hudaydah —and making arrangements that will allow the charities and the non-governmental organisations to get on with their vital work. The hon. Gentleman is right that the country is on the brink of famine, and it is probably beyond that now. There is not enough food, oil or other essentials getting through to the people.
With the limiting of US arms, even by one sale, as well as this new evidence on cluster munitions coming to light this week, will the Secretary of State outline the circumstances in which the Government would suspend UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia and call for an independent UN-led investigation into potential breaches of international humanitarian law?
If we had evidence that international humanitarian law had been breached, that, of course, would be a serious factor in considering whether to agree to future licences or to suspend existing licences. If we felt that the Saudi authorities were not properly able to investigate allegations of this kind, we would also, of course, support the call there has already been for an independent inquiry, but the events of the last few weeks and months have shown that, thanks to our pressure, the Saudis have been able to investigate these allegations, and they have today, as a result, made the announcement that they have.
Given our very strong diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia, and given its saying that it will no longer use cluster bombs, could it be stressed very strongly to the Saudis that, as a gesture of good faith, the independently verified destruction of the cluster bombs they have would go a long way towards restoring the faith of the international community in what they say?
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for prior sight of it. He was careful to say that the Saudis confirmed that they will not further use BL755 cluster munitions—that is, the British-supplied ones. Do they hold stocks of similar munitions supplied by others, and have they stopped their use as well?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me another opportunity to clarify that the Saudis’ statement does relate to BL755 cluster munitions—the only ones that we sold them, which have been at the centre of these allegations. I am not able to comment on whether they hold stocks of other cluster munitions. Perhaps he would allow me to write to him on that.
Does my right hon. Friend think that if the UK had ended arms exports to Saudi Arabia, as some have argued for, thereby weakening, or possibly irretrievably damaging, our relationship with an old friend, the investigation that he is announcing the results of would have been more, or less, likely, and that the UK would have more, or less, influence over events on the ground in Yemen?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Had we refused to sell particular arms or munitions to Saudi Arabia, our place would undoubtedly have been taken by some less scrupulous arms supplier who would not have pressed for this kind of investigation. We have had the investigation, we have had the confirmation from the Saudi authorities, and we have now had the result that the coalition will no longer use BL755s.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I declare my interest as an Amnesty International member. I welcome the fact that the UK Government will help with the destruction of the stockpile. How many BL755s are in Saudi? Will the Government also help with the clearing of the bomblets—one bomb produces 147 bomblets—from the villages in Yemen?
We do not have records going back right through the 1980s of exactly how many cluster munitions were sold to Saudi Arabia. We have offered to help to dispose of any remaining stocks that the Saudis hold. I am not able to offer UK help in a conflict zone to deal with any unexploded ordnance. My best information is that this particular munition did not explode, and that therefore the bomblets, as they are described, are still in the area, but if I am wrong about that, I will write to my hon. Friend.