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Yemen: Breaches of International Humanitarian Law

Volume 774: debated on Monday 5 September 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat as a Statement the response to an Urgent Question given in the other place by Mr Tobias Ellwood MP on the Government’s assessment of breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, I would like to thank my right honourable friend for raising this important matter. Indeed, recognising the importance of the issue, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary issued a Written Ministerial Statement today to update Parliament on the situation in Yemen. This update specifically includes references to international humanitarian law.

We are aware of reports of alleged violations of international humanitarian law by parties to the conflict, and as I have said on many occasions we take these allegations very seriously.

The Government regularly raise the importance of compliance with international humanitarian law with the Saudi Arabian Government and other members of the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue of international humanitarian law compliance most recently with his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister al-Jubeir, on 22 August, and I did so on 25 August in Jeddah.

It is important that, in the first instance, the Saudi Arabian-led coalition conducts thorough and conclusive investigations into incidents where it is alleged that international humanitarian law has been breached. They have the best insight into their own military procedures and will be able to conduct the most thorough and conclusive investigations. It will also allow the coalition forces to understand what went wrong and apply the lessons learnt in the best possible way. This is the standard we set ourselves and our allies.

In this respect, Saudi Arabia announced more detail of how incidents of concern involving coalition forces are investigated on 31 January. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition Joint Investigations Assessment Team publically announced the outcome of eight investigations on 4 August, and further publications will follow.

I would also like to reiterate that clarifications made in the 21 July Written Ministerial Statement do not reflect a change in position. The changes were made to ensure that the parliamentary record is consistent and that it accurately reflects policy.

As outlined in the Statement of 21 July, it is important to make it clear that neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reaches a conclusion as to whether or not an international humanitarian law violation has taken place, in relation to each and every incident of potential concern that comes to its attention. This would simply not be possible in conflicts to which the UK is not a party, as is the case in Yemen.

The Ministry of Defence monitors incidents of alleged international humanitarian law violations using available information. This is used to form an overall view on the approach and attitude of Saudi Arabia to international humanitarian law. This, in turn, informs the risk assessment made under the consolidated criteria and whether there is a clear risk that it might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law. We are not acting to determine whether a sovereign state has or has not acted in breach of international humanitarian law but instead, as criterion 2(c) requires, we are acting to make an overall judgment.

In conclusion, I am sorry that there has been confusion. We are responding to two Written Ministerial Statements that were in error. After trawling through other such Statements, of which there are more than 90, four more were seen to be in error. I came to the House today to clarify that. But as soon as I became aware of it, I made a Statement and wrote to the right honourable gentleman and the chairs of the International Development Committee, the Committees on Arms Export Controls and the Foreign Affairs Committee. I hope that that has clarified the situation”.

My Lords, we had a debate in this Chamber on these matters in January, when I asked the Minister whether it was sufficient to leave these serious breaches in international humanitarian law to conversations with the Saudi Government. It now transpires, eight months later, that we have been under the misleading impression that the Government have been undertaking investigations and reaching evidence-based conclusions, when they have not. The conflict in Yemen is ongoing and the UK is still selling arms to the Saudis. Clearly, the time must be now for the UK Government to suspend arms sales so that there can be a proper investigation into these serious breaches of international humanitarian law.

My Lords, as I mentioned a moment ago in repeating my honourable friend’s Answer, the UK Government do not carry out investigations in these circumstances. Those taking part in the incidents are better placed to report on them. I referred to the press statement put out by the joint incident assessment team, which makes clear its conclusions with regard to the eight incidents. I would be happy to make sure that a copy of it is available to the noble Lord by putting a copy in the Library, as other noble Lords may wish to see it. We have very carefully taken an overall view. Looking at the available evidence, it is clear to us that, given the guidance under the consolidated arms criteria and the EU criteria, the level has not been reached where those criteria have been breached. We therefore do not believe that we are in a position where any of the contracts awarded should be withdrawn.

My Lords, the Statement says that we are not a party to this conflict but surely the supply of arms and weapons to the Saudis makes us an indirect party to it, which gives us a degree of responsibility. We have just had a referendum result which those who supported leaving Europe declared was a declaration of independence from Europe. Those of us who are concerned about British foreign policy are anxious that we should not as a result become more dependent on the Sunni Arab states and the Chinese, since we depend on their markets. Since the Saudis appear to be making a huge mistake by defining a conflict which has deep historical and local roots within Yemen as a Sunni-Shia regional conflict, should we not be more critical of and a little less acquiescent to the Saudi approach?

My Lords, we are never acquiescent if there are breaches of international humanitarian law and there is evidence to that fact. With regard to the conflict in Yemen, a UNSC resolution—I think that it is Resolution 2216, but if I am to be corrected I will make sure that the noble Lord knows of it—recognises that the current President is a legitimate President. Saleh is not the legitimate President and therefore the Houthis are carrying out a violent activity which is not legitimate. The United Nations has clearly made the point that it is right for us all to seek a solution to the Yemen crisis. I am certainly disappointed that it has not been possible in these last weeks—my honourable friend Tobias Ellwood has recently been in the region—but we strongly support the work of the UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and his tireless efforts. That is what we need to do.

My Lords, I know that this question is mostly about arms supplies to the Saudis and Saudi activities, and the tragic and horrific incidents in Yemen. However, can my noble friend confirm, first, that these matters have been raised not only by the Foreign Secretary but, it is reported, by the Prime Minister at the highest level with the Saudi authorities? If so, I welcome that very much. Secondly, although this is not mainstream to the Question, we are told in reports that some of the worst suffering—starvation and the lack of water or food of any kind—is taking place on a very large scale in Yemen at the moment. There is a gigantic humanitarian crisis on top of everything else. Have we any news at all on what steps can be taken with the UN or other international agencies to begin to ameliorate this horrific and terrible situation?

My Lords, I can confirm that the Foreign Secretary has raised these matters. I will check whether the current Prime Minister has done so; I know that the previous Prime Minister did. However, I will check on that and get back to my noble friend, who raises the point which must affect us all: that one-fifth of the world’s total population who are in need of humanitarian aid live in Yemen. It is 21 million people or 80% of that population. The UK is the fourth-largest donor and we have more than doubled our commitment to Yemen over the last financial year, but what really needs to be done is to find the peace.

My Lords, surely the Minister will accept that at the heart of this deepening and horrific conflict, with its humanitarian disasters, is the proxy war being fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran in that arena. Is it not our duty to use our historic alliance with the Saudis, in particular, and our new-found relations through the nuclear treaty with Tehran to make sure that they seek a rapprochement instead of fighting each other at tremendous cost to local people in Yemen?

The noble Lord makes a very acute observation. I would call upon Iran to make best efforts to avoid doing anything to protract the conflict in Yemen. It is important that in both circumstances Saudi Arabia and Iran are in a position where they make sure that peace can happen. For any country anywhere to carry out a proxy war is something we should deplore.

My Lords, is it not a concern to Her Majesty’s Government that, although in the UN system and so-on ex-President Saleh is not the legitimate Government, the legitimate Government have been attacked? The attacks on the ex-government forces are legitimate, according to the UN system. I am following the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, here. The Statement says it,

“would … not be possible in conflicts to which the UK is not a party”.

Are the Government not concerned that we are thought to have a dog in this fight and that we are on the side of the Saudis?

My Lords, to use the noble Lord’s rather straightforward analogy, we do not see ourselves as a dog in the fight. We see ourselves as the dog in the peace, working through the United Nations to try to achieve peace. The quad met last week, and we are disappointed that it was not possible for peace to be achieved. We are not going to give up on that. We will continue our work through our allies, and particularly through the UN, to achieve what Yemen needs: to be in a position where 80% of its population can feed themselves instead of being in such dire conditions.