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House of Lords Hansard
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11 May 2016
Volume 771

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the scope and purposes of the involvement of United Kingdom security forces in military action in Yemen.

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My Lords, the UK supports the Saudi Arabian-led coalition military intervention in Yemen, which came at the request of legitimate President Hadi to deter aggression and allow for the return of the legitimate Yemeni Government. However, the UK is not a member of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition and has no military presence in Yemen. British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting process.

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I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Foreign Secretary has said that the Saudi-led coalition is not targeting civilians, but Human Rights Watch and many other international organisations have identified cases in which the coalition has attacked markets, hospitals, clinics, schools, factories, wedding parties and private homes. Can the Minister now acknowledge that some of those attacks do indeed violate international law? Will he commit his Government to strengthening parliamentary scrutiny of British involvement with Saudi military operations—including, in particular, embedded troops, UK involvement in drone strikes and intelligence sharing, and the sale of arms capable of use in the conflict in Yemen?

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My Lords, we are aware of reports of alleged violations of international humanitarian law by actors in the conflict, and we take these very seriously. The MoD monitors incidents of alleged IHL violations using the information that is available to us, which is sometimes imperfect. We regularly raise the issue of the importance of compliance with international humanitarian law with the Saudi Arabian Government and other members of the military coalition; we continue to engage with them on that subject. Incidentally, we have also raised our concerns with the Houthis on the importance of compliance with international law. In our view, it is vital that all sides conduct thorough and conclusive investigations into incidents where it is alleged that IHL has been breached.

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Is this not an unwinnable war that is causing thousands of civilian deaths? Does the Minister agree that the first need is for a ceasefire with effective monitoring? Would that not allow access to desperately needed food and medicine, and for some sensible negotiation?

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I agree with the noble Lord. We welcome and fully support the UN-led talks which began in Kuwait on 21 April. This has to be a turning point for Yemen, and we welcome the progress that has been made so far. It is vital that momentum be maintained in reaching an agreement. We strongly support the work of UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed but, as with all negotiations of this kind, it would not be right to expect them to be quick or easy. A lot of tough discussions need to be held but, with good faith to overcome obstacles, we are hopeful of a political solution to end the conflict.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware that Human Rights Watch, whose involvement has already been mentioned, has documented 43 specific strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, each one of which it judges was unlawful? How many of these cases have been investigated by the British Government, and in each case, what was the conclusion?

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My Lords, as I said, we do monitor reports of humanitarian violations, but it is important for Saudi Arabia, in the first instance, to conduct thorough and conclusive investigations into incidents. It will have the best insight into its own military procedures and will be able to conduct the most thorough and conclusive investigations. That will also allow the country to really understand what went wrong in a particular case and to apply the lessons learnt in the best possible way. That is the standard we set ourselves, and we set it for our allies. We would not expect Saudi Arabia to be treated any differently.

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Does my noble friend agree that there is absolute urgency about the peace talks taking place in Kuwait and that the risk of starvation among many of the Yemeni population is very real in spite of the massive United Nations efforts to alleviate the situation, particularly as there are disturbing signs that al-Qaeda may be entering into the issue and that there is a real risk of its resurgence in the Arabian peninsula, which is the last thing we want to see?

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My noble friend is absolutely right. Yemen’s is now one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world. Of the world’s population in need of humanitarian aid, one-fifth lives in Yemen, totalling 21 million people. Aid is being co-ordinated through the United Nations, as my noble friend is aware, and is being delivered through UN agencies and NGOs. The UK is the fourth-largest donor, I am pleased to say, and we have more than doubled our commitment to Yemen over the past financial year to £85 million. But there is much more to be done, including ensuring the flow of commercial goods into Yemen and access for humanitarian agencies.

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My Lords, I welcome the talks taking place in Kuwait, but what involvement are we having in these talks and what involvement might we have in keeping any peace?

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My Lords, it is too soon to say what involvement we might have, should a peace agreement be reached. The talks are facilitated, as I mentioned, by the United Nations, and we are working closely with it to encourage the parties to engage in good faith without preconditions and to respect the ceasefire which began on 10 April.

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My Lords,

“Information is power. It lets people hold the powerful to account”.

Those were the words of the Prime Minister on 6 July 2011, when he said that his Government were,

“creating a new era of transparency”.

The Defence Secretary, on the same theme, said in December last year that the Government were committed to transparency in the operations of troops embedded in other nations’ armed forces. Why did the self-same Defence Secretary say on 18 April this year that in future, Parliament will not be told when the Government commit British forces to conflict where they are embedded in and under the command of the armed forces of another country? Why is Parliament being bypassed?

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Parliament is not being bypassed. It has been the practice of successive Governments not to comment in detail on embedded personnel who are under the chain of command of the nation with which they are serving. However, we are transparent and publish figures on the numbers of our personnel who are embedded, so the transparency exists.