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Saudi Arabia: Arms Sales

Volume 804: debated on Friday 10 July 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reverse their decision to resume granting export licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, the short answer to that Question is no. The Government were required by the court judgment to retake their licensing decisions; they have now done so in a way that reflects the judgment. The Government take their export responsibilities seriously and assess all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.

My Lords, we have a brilliant arms industry in the United Kingdom, and I have no problem with arms sales to other countries, as long as they are properly controlled under the precautionary principle. But the underlying issue raised by the Government’s decision is that they need to decide what kind of global nation they intend the UK to be: a champion of fair and decent values or an apologist for human rights abusers.

Announcing the decision to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen on the day after 20 Saudi officials were placed on the FCO sanction list for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi—in part for criticising Saudi conduct in Yemen—is an extraordinary stretch, even for this Government, who seem to pride themselves on holding two or more contradictory positions at the same time. Can the Minister explain how the revised methodology can possibly allow the Government to describe a five-year, Saudi-led assault on Yemen, using British planes, technical support and equipment, which has seen thousands of civilians killed in schools, hospitals, funeral halls and market places, and left some 20 million civilians needing humanitarian assistance just to survive, as a set of “isolated incidents”?

First of all, I utterly condemn the reprehensible killing of Mr Khashoggi. The UK and Saudi Arabia have a long-standing bilateral relationship based on a number of pillars, including trade, defence, security, energy and shared concern about regional issues. Saudi Arabia is a major political and economic power in the Middle East, and its position as home to the cities of Makkah and Medina give it unmatched convening power in the Arab world. We regularly raise our human rights concerns with the Saudi authorities, using a range of ministerial and other diplomatic channels.

My Lords, I agree with Save the Children that this decision is indefensible. The Government say that they want to be a global force for good but, the very next day, decide that killing and injuring thousands of children does not constitute “a pattern of harm”. Proper scrutiny of this decision requires access to the unique methodology and data that the Secretary of State referred to in her statement. Can the Minister explain the methodology? Will Parliament be given access to it, or will Parliament and the defenceless children of Yemen have to wait until our courts compel its production—as they will?

The assessment of whether an incident created a possible breach or serious violation of international humanitarian law is a complex matter. In order to review that, we were required to draw on all available sources of information, including some that were—I am sure noble Lords will understand this—necessarily confidential and sensitive. We are therefore not able to go into the details of individual assessments.

My Lords, the bombing of weddings, funerals and hospitals in Yemen clearly constitutes a pattern of very bloody violations by Saudi Arabia. For Liz Truss to say that it is okay to resume arms sales because these were “isolated incidents” is tantamount to saying that one can be “a little bit pregnant”. Earlier this week, 20 Saudi nationals close to the Saudi regime were designated under the Magnitsky regulations for the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi. How can we be a force for good when we sell arms to a country with a sustained record of human rights abuses?

We indeed have assessed that there were a small number of incidents that have been treated, for the purposes of the analysis, as violations of IHL. However, these were isolated incidents that did not display any particular pattern, and our analysis shows that Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with IHL in the specific commitments that it has made.

My Lords, we are all rightly deeply concerned about the horrendous violence in Yemen, and I am grateful that my noble friend the Minister has just confirmed that he will continue to raise issues of human rights. We should, however, also reflect on the whole map of the region, with destabilisation from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean by the Iranian regime’s support for terrorists and militia. Can my noble friend explain why there was such a long delay in taking this particular decision?

I think my noble friend will understand that this is of course a complex matter. It was very important that, this time, we got it right. Developing a revised methodology and applying the enhanced IHL analysis to recorded allegations across the conflict is not a straightforward task. It was vital that the Government got this right first time, with a comprehensive assessment process that was strictly in accordance with the legal approach identified by the Court of Appeal.

My Lords, this sensitive issue has been very thoroughly examined. Can the Minister confirm that airborne precision weapons are in the order? Does he agree that, correctly targeted, the inherent accuracy of such weapons makes their use in air attacks less likely to cause unintended collateral damage or, more importantly, large numbers of non-combatant casualties?

The noble and gallant Lord makes a good point. As I have said previously, we have examined all the incidents and are satisfied that these were isolated incidents that did not display any particular pattern. Our analysis shows that Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with IHL.

My Lords, there are a number of Royal Air Force officers and ex-officers—British ex-pats—in Saudi Arabia in the various programmes involving aircraft. Last year, when this was discussed in the House, it was said that one of the benefits of having them there if we were selling arms was that they could give advice about targeting and so on. Can the Minister say whether any Royal Air Force officers, or indeed ex-pats, are involved at all in the targeting process within Saudi Arabia?

I do not believe that they are, but in order to give the noble Lord a completely accurate answer to his question, I will write to him.

My Lords, your Lordships’ International Relations and Defence Committee, of which I am a member, produced reports on the Middle East in 2017 and Yemen in 2019, in which we raised concerns about the Saudi-led coalition’s misuse of weaponry leading to the loss of civilian life. In particular, we noted that assurances by Saudi-led reviews are not enough and not an adequate way of implementing our obligations of risk-based assessment set out in the Arms Trade Treaty. Does the Minister agree, and will he clarify what assessment has been made, beyond what the Saudis have told the Government?

The assessments we make are very much our own assessments, led by specialist people who are expert in these matters. We draw on information from a number of sources, including but not confined to the Saudis, and a whole range of material is considered in coming to our view of what the appropriate assessment of a particular incident should be.

My Lords, for five years Yemeni civilians have been killed in attacks on schools, hospitals and marketplaces, mainly by Saudi-led air strikes. The Government have concluded that there were only an isolated number of incidents in which such air strikes violated international human rights law. Will my noble friend tell the House exactly how many air strikes that refers to? If he cannot give an exact figure today, will he undertake to write with that information?

As I have said previously, the assessments draw on a number of sources, some of which are necessarily confidential and sensitive. However, I have heard the question clearly and I will write to my noble friend with the information she is seeking.

My Lords, I declare my interests in Saudi Arabia as set out in the register. Saudi Arabia is an important ally as well as an important market for UK exporters. However, as far as our exporters are concerned, the real issue at present is not new business but payment. The Saudi Government’s decreased oil income and rising Covid expense is evidenced by seriously late payment. What advice is being given to UK exporters on this market? Will the Minister also comment on Saudi arms import priorities in the current circumstances?

The noble Lord raises a matter I am personally very familiar with, having myself experienced as a businessman the Saudis’ propensity not to pay on time. I fear that the only quick advice I can give him, slightly lightheartedly, is persistence with them. I normally find that persistence pays off. More seriously, our embassy in Riyadh is always willing to help British exporters in this situation and to make representations to the appropriate Saudi authorities.

My Lords, on the Bishops’ Benches we welcome the unanimous decision by the United Nations Security Council to endorse a global ceasefire in the context of the Covid pandemic. Does the Minister accept that, in light of the horrific situation in Yemen, already mentioned several times, the Government’s decision to resume selling arms to Saudi Arabia risks fatally undermining the implementation —[Inaudible.]

Both personally and as a Minister I remain deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Yemen. I think it is important that we continue to work with all parties to find a political solution to the conflict. This will help create the conditions for the legitimate Government to improve their capacity to protect human rights. Yemen is a human rights priority country for the UK.

My Lords, the Government have gained considerable credit recently for toughening up sanctions and for their willingness to apply those sanctions in the context of human rights abuses. Do the Government understand that real credit will be established—otherwise cynicism, bitterness and dissolution will take its place—only if they apply themselves with equal vigour to the protection of countless ordinary people who are being subjected to suppression and oppression in Saudi Arabia and Yemen?

First, I acknowledge the noble Lord’s obvious deeply felt concern about this matter. The UK and Saudi have a long-standing bilateral relationship based on a number of pillars, including trade, defence, security, energy and shared concern about regional issues. Matters are changing in Saudi Arabia. We have seen progress on social reforms under Saudi Vision 2030. For example, the Saudi economy was the most improved for women’s economic opportunities, according to the recent World Bank report, Women, Business and the Law—so things are happening there and I think it is right for us to encourage that process of change in Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, I am afraid that the time for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise to the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins and Lady Warsi, for not being able to call them.

Sitting suspended.