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Arms Exports to Saudi Arabia

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 25 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of weapons exported from the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia on the conflict in Yemen.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government take their arms export responsibilities seriously. We draw on a range of sources in making assessments, including from NGOs and international organisations which detail political and humanitarian developments in Yemen. We also consult regularly with colleagues at our overseas missions and in other government departments to ensure that we have all the relevant information to make an informed decision.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I was given an assurance in a past written response to a Question that every sale of arms from the UK undergoes a rigorous assessment in the light of serious violations of international humanitarian law. Yet in 2018 a Minister in the other place said:

“The MOD does not investigate allegations of IHL violations”,

and in 2016, as evidenced in the Court of Appeal last week, the decision was made that there would be no assessment of past violations of international humanitarian law with regard to Saudi Arabia. Can the Minister clarify whether international humanitarian law is taken into consideration when selling weapons?

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. The key test for granting export licences in these circumstances is criterion 2c of the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, which considers whether there is a clear risk that the items to be exported might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law. The right reverend Prelate then moved on to a decision made in 2016. At that point, international humanitarian law was considered on past events as well, and the judgment under ground 1 was that we should also take into account past events.

My Lords, is it the case that the Saudi Arabian air force has embedded within it representatives of the British arms industry?

My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, there have been exports to Saudi Arabia, including air platforms and air-to-ground munitions and associated matters. BAE Systems works in Saudi Arabia, and I think that that is the point that the noble Lord is making.

Can the Minister now answer the question I asked the other day on the Statement—namely, whether this suspension, while the legal processes work out, covers repeat deliveries under contracts? Does he not agree that the Appeal Court has done us all a great favour by drawing to the attention of the Emirates and Saudi Arabians the real risks that they have been breaching international humanitarian law?

My Lords, at this stage I am not sure whether I can add much to what I said on Thursday relating to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. We are carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision-making, and while we do this we will not grant any new licences to Saudi Arabia or other coalition partners for exports of items that might be used in the conflict in Yemen. All existing licences are also under review.

My Lords, could we not turn things round the other way and say that we are not going to grant licences unless there is a very clear argument that a particular licence is acceptable, rather than what we are doing at the moment, which seems to be that, unless you can find a very good example or reason not to, you grant the licence? Saudi Arabia is not a country we should be granting licences to, and it is time we said that.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a point regarding the granting of licences and how we should go about doing so in the future. As I have already said, we are considering the judgment that was laid down. We are not granting any new licences to Saudi Arabia or its coalition partners for items that could be used in the conflict in Yemen. We will be considering all these matters over the next few weeks.

My Lords, is the suspension of any new licences for equipment not rendered a nonsense if existing integrated training and engagements are carried out by the British and Saudi air forces? These have included Operation Green Flag, which concluded in December last year and of which Major General Haidar bin Rafie Al-Omari, the commander, said:

“The Green Flag exercise involves all our air force combat systems supporting Operation Decisive Storm and Operation Restoring Hope (in Yemen)”.

He added:

“The British Royal Air Force aims to integrate all combat systems, including air combat, air support and electronic warfare”.

Will the review ensure that not only equipment licences but current training are suspended?

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a number of points. The fact is that, as far as existing UK military personnel are concerned, we are providing information, advice and training to help Saudi Arabia minimise threats as well as sharing techniques for minimising civilian casualties. All UK personnel remain under UK command and control. I am not aware of the exercise mentioned by the noble Lord, but I will of course ask my officials about it.

My Lords, the Minister talked about informed decisions. Noble Lords have alluded to the fact that many in this House have raised concerns about arms exports because of evidence—presented by the UN and others—of clear breaches of humanitarian law. The judgment by the Court of Appeal should not be considered only in terms of future arms sales; we should be looking at the process that led to this Government disregarding evidence of breaches of humanitarian law.

My Lords, we did not disregard evidence of breaches of humanitarian law. We took note of what was said by NGOs and the UN panel of experts as well as what JIAT has reported following its investigations. The Ministry of Defence also monitors all alleged IHL violations using all available information from a great variety of sources.