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As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the Government take their arms export responsibilities very seriously and operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, taking into account all relevant factors at the time of the application. A licence will not be issued for any country if to do so would be inconsistent with any provision of the mandatory criteria, including where we assess there is a clear risk that it might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law. All our arms exports to Saudi Arabia are scrutinised in detail through established processes and against the EU and national consolidated criteria.
The Government are aware that UK-supplied defence equipment has been used in Yemen. We take very seriously any allegations of IHL violations and regularly raise the importance of compliance with the Saudi Government and other members of the military coalition, as I did when I visited Saudi Arabia on Monday. We have said that all allegations of IHL violations should be investigated.
The Ministry of Defence monitors incidents of alleged IHL violations using the available information, which in turn informs our overall assessment of IHL compliance in Yemen. The Government are satisfied that extant licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK’s export licensing criteria.
As the House knows, the situation in Yemen is complex and difficult. The UK supports politically the Saudi-led coalition intervention, which came at the request of the legitimate President Hadi, to deter aggression by the Houthis and forces loyal to the former President Saleh and allow for the return of the legitimate Yemeni Government.
We have been clear with all parties that military action should be taken in accordance with IHL. The coalition has played a crucial role in reversing the military advance of the Houthis and forces loyal to the former President, which is now helping create the conditions for the return of the legitimate Yemeni Government.
The military gains of the coalition and the Yemeni Government must now be used to drive forward the political process. The UN-facilitated political talks are the UK’s top priority, and they are likely to recommence in February.
I thank the Minister for his reply. As the House knows, there is a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen as a result of the civil war, in which more than 7,000 people have been killed, 2.5 million displaced, and millions more left without food. We all want to see the return of a legitimate Government to Yemen, but non-governmental organisations, including Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch, have reported serious potential breaches of international humanitarian law by all sides, and the UN has spoken out about what is happening.
Yesterday, it came to light that the final report of the UN panel of experts has
“documented that the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law.”
It refers to weddings, civilian vehicles, residential areas, schools, mosques, markets and factories. I understand that the Government received the report on Monday. Will the Minister set out what specific action, if any, has been taken since receiving it?
The panel documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law, and we know that UK armaments and planes sold to Saudi Arabia are legitimately being used in this conflict. However, our arms export licensing criteria state clearly that
“the Government will...not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”
Will the Minister explain how many of these incidents have been examined, and why he is satisfied that IHL has not been breached? How many of the 119 Saudi-led coalition sorties have the British personnel on the ground provided a “quick check” on given that the Foreign Secretary told the House that
“our people on the ground have reported that there is no evidence of deliberate breaches of international humanitarian law.”—[Hansard, 12 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 697.]
Can the Minister explain how he squares that statement with the conclusion of the UN panel of experts? Will the Minister assure the House that he has not received reports from our personnel of any breaches of international humanitarian law and not just “deliberate” breaches?
Given all the reports, particularly the findings of the new UN panel, will the Minister explain on what grounds he thinks that there should not be a proper investigation into whether there is a clear risk that British items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law? Given the detail of the UN panel’s report and the extreme seriousness of its findings, will the Government now suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until that investigation concludes? This is about whether the Government are implementing their own arms control rules. Appearing to be reluctant to do so does them no credit nor does it help those who are affected by this conflict, which urgently needs to come to an end.
First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tone and manner in which he has raised these very important issues. He was absolutely right to start by outlining the humanitarian catastrophe that we face, with so many people failing to get the food and water necessary to survive.
Unfortunately, NGOs are prevented by the conflict from getting to the very areas they need to reach. Sadly, however, we have also seen the Houthis using food—denying it to people—as a weapon of war. Not only have they taken away trucks from NGOs and UN organisations, but they have taken away the trucks that Saudi Arabia has provided. The kit, trucks, food and water have all been stolen by the Houthis and distributed by them to favour their supporters in a country that—we should understand this—is extremely complex. Even the concept of the nation state is very modern in a country that, for thousands of years, has been conducted as a tribal society, where loyalty is to the family, the community and the tribe.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned potential breaches. I am pleased that he used the words “alleged” and “potential”, because it is important that this is evidence-based: we need to see the evidence and the details to make firm judgments, rather than rely on hearsay or, indeed, photographs. That is what we should do to understand such a dynamic situation, in which asymmetric warfare is being used.
We are aware that the Houthis, who are very media-savvy in such a situation, are using their own artillery pieces deliberately, targeting individual areas where the people are not loyal to them, to give the impression that there have been air attacks. That is not to exonerate Saudi Arabia from any of the mistakes it might have made, but it is why it is so important to have a thorough process to investigate absolutely every single incident. During my visit this week, I made it very clear that while we now have a process to be followed in Saudi Arabia—as in Kunduz, and in countries such as Afghanistan—it must be improved: every time an alleged incident is put forward by an NGO or another country, Saudi Arabia must conduct the necessary process to confirm exactly what happened and whether its aircraft were involved. If the Saudi Arabians were involved, they must put up their hands and follow the due processes of international law.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the report by the UN panel of experts. He has a copy of it, and so do I. However, it is the leaked report. It was received by the UN on Monday, but not given to us. We have not officially received the report. [Interruption.] Yes, of course I have got it, but I have not received it or had time—[Interruption.] Chris Bryant should hang on for a moment. I have not received it officially, and it is important to have a chance to digest it.
From what I have read of the report, I can say that I take it extremely seriously, as we absolutely must. I commit myself to inviting the Saudi Arabians to sit down with us at a very senior level. There are two opportunities to do so next week: first, in Rome, where the counter-Daesh coalition will meet; and secondly, in London, where, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are hosting the Syria conference. We will sit down and discuss with them the allegations and all the information in this important report.
We should however recognise, as I know from having been able to glance at the report, that the people who wrote it did not visit Yemen. They did not actually go there, but based the report on satellite technology. That does not mean that we should dismiss it; we are taking it very seriously, and I commit myself to sitting down with the Saudi Arabians to go through it with a fine-toothed comb. I just make it very clear, however, that we must do so in a methodical way, on the basis of the evidence and following the process itself.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the number of sorties that have taken place. Yes, there are questions about many of the sorties, but we must understand that thousands of sorties are taking place and we must put the questions about those sorties in that context.
As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said, it is clear that we are not part of this coalition—we are not in the targeting cell—but it is important, because of the equipment we are selling to Saudi Arabia, that we make sure due process is followed absolutely.
The difficult truth is, is it not, that the charge sheet laid out in the report and repeated by the shadow Foreign Secretary could have been laid against us and other countries when conducting military operations in the past? The lesson that must be learned is that operating outside the rule of law is ultimately self-defeating. What is the Minister’s assessment of the Saudis determination to acknowledge such lessons and to keep their and their coalition partners’ operations within the rule of law?
The Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs raises the very important point that whatever theatre of operations we are operating in, there must be the same processes when collateral damage takes place. That applies to us and it must apply to Saudi Arabia. It is fair to say that Saudi Arabia has not been fast enough to responds to the details of the report. We must make sure that that happens.
One purpose of my visit was to ensure that there is transparency, so that people are aware exactly when there has been collateral damage for which Saudi Arabia is responsible, but also when it is not involved. If I may give an example of that, Mr Speaker, the Iranian embassy was allegedly hit. That message did a couple of laps around the world on the Twittersphere. I asked some of the local staff at our embassy to wander down and look at the Iranian embassy. Actually, there was no real damage at all. That is an indication of how we need to get to the truth and make sure that everything is evidence based.
I am sure that everyone in this House would agree that the report that arrived at the UN is deeply, deeply worrying. It raises serious questions not only about the UK’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia, but about what the British military advisers are currently doing in Saudi Arabia, particularly given that the report states that Yemeni civilians have been deliberately starved as a tactic of war by the Saudi coalition.
It is worth remembering that the UK Government gave just £75 million in aid to Yemen last year, while at the same time raking in £5.5 billion in profits from arms sales over the past five years. It is time for an immediate ban on arms sales between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, and it is time for the Government to make good on the promise that they signed up to in the arms trade treaty. Can the Minister tell me when the Committees on Arms Export Controls will next meet? They should have investigated this case, but have not met in this Parliament. Will he make a firm commitment to work with the United Nations and support an international commission of inquiry?
I am sorry to hear that the position of the Scottish nationalists is that they are willing to take what they hear in the media and turn it into British foreign policy. That is incorrect. We need to work on evidence. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement in his place. As he has confirmed, there are many cases in which the Ministry of Defence and I choose to refuse the continuation or start of a licence because we believe that the situation has changed. We do that based on evidence when we know the facts. We do not have a knee-jerk reaction and only later realise whether we were wrong or right.
My hon. Friend raises an important point that shows the complexity of this situation. Very sadly, the governor of Aden was killed, not by the Houthis, but by Daesh, which is developing a presence in Yemen. As we know, extremists take advantage of a vacuum of governance. The port of Mukalla, which is further down the east coast, is entirely run by al-Qaeda. That shows that the extremists are based there. Al-Qaeda in Yemen are the ones who were allegedly responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack, the print bombing attack and the underpants bombing attack. They are exactly who we are trying to defeat, but they are embedding themselves in a country where governance is missing.
I am sure that the Minister would agree that under the chairmanship of Sir John Stanley, the Committees on Arms Export Controls, of which I was a member for 15 years, played a very useful role in checking some of the exports that the Government had agreed to. In fact, we had 100 of them revoked. The Committee has a very useful role to play. Why has it not met for the last eight months?
I do not know why the Committee has not met and I want it to meet. The right hon. Lady makes a powerful point but it is not in the gift of the Government. It is an important Committee—a critical Committee—not least in respect of subject we are discussing. It is the one Committee that can provide the details and the scrutiny, in the way that the great Sir John Stanley did. That is exactly what is missing. It is in the gift of the three international-facing Committees, because they make up the membership. I encourage the Committee to form as soon as possible so that it can scrutinise the Executive.
As Hilary Benn said, and as the Minister accepted, a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented magnitude has unfolded in Yemen. As we learned from the United Nations last August, Yemen in five months is like Syria after five years. It is critical that humanitarian aid gets into the country and that, for those purposes, the Red sea ports are opened up. Will the Minister say when he expects that to happen and what we and others are doing to ensure that it happens?
[Official Report, 22 February 2016, Vol. 606, c. 1-2MC.]My hon. and learned Friend makes a powerful point and I acknowledge his expertise and interest in the area. The logistics of getting humanitarian aid across the country are severely limited, because aid has to go through the main port of Aden in the south. It is therefore critical that the port of Hudaydah on the Red sea coast is opened up as soon as possible. That cannot happen first of all because it is in Houthi hands, and secondly because the cranes have been damaged, which is perhaps a smaller issue. It is priority for the UN envoy, Ismail Ahmed, who will be discussing opening that port as soon as possible to allow aid to get in swiftly to the rest of the country.
Are we not being trapped into involvement in a conflict that is ancient, deep, complex and none of our business, which is exactly the trap that ISIL and al-Qaeda are laying in order to provoke the west by terrorism and other actions to foment a world war between Christians and Muslims? Will the Minister explain why the Saudis are our allies in the Yemen and our deadly enemies in Syria and Iraq?
I could not disagree with the hon. Gentleman more on the idea that this is none of our business. I just gave a list of terrorist groups that are operating and growing in that country. Strategically, this subject is important not just for Yemen but for the wider region, and there are knock-on effects not least to do with the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We chair the friends of Yemen in the United Nations and work closely with Yemen. It is part of our heritage and history. There is an expectation that we show some leadership, which has manifested itself not just in the humanitarian support, but in the work we are doing politically to support the UN envoy.
I commend my hon. Friend for a measured and well-informed response on these matters. Does he agree that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a very important ally to the United Kingdom, upon which we depend for vital intelligence for the security of our people; that thousands of highly skilled jobs in the United Kingdom are directly dependent upon our defence exports to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; that we do not withhold defence equipment exports to the United States, and it makes mistakes in its targeting; and that we can help Saudi Arabia to avoid future mistakes?
Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the region, not least for the reasons I articulated in my previous response, and also from a regional and historical perspective. Because of that strong relationship, this Government and previous ones are able to have frank conversations that are able to effect change. We want change to happen at a pace, but it has to happen at a pace that will work. The frank conversations I was able to have when I was there covered a range of issues, not least human rights, and not least Ali al-Nimr, the juveniles and even women’s right to drive. Those are the issues that we are able to discuss and try to move forward on.
Tens of thousands of workers’ livelihoods in this country rely on exports of defence equipment around the world. I am proud that a Labour Government introduced the arms Export Control Act 2002, which regulates our defence exports. Will the Minister use his good offices to take up the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd that the quadripartite Committee should take up those investigations? Will he resist any attempt to boycott arms sales to Saudi Arabia before the evidence is looked at? All that would happen is that the gap would be filled by other countries exporting those arms when they do not have our robust regulation.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s interest and expertise in Defence matters, which he has studied for many, many years. Indeed, Labour is to be congratulated on the introduction of that very important Act. As I said to Ann Clwyd, who also has expertise in this region, the Committees are critical. They are missing from the Chamber. All sides need to work together to get the Committees on Arms Export Controls up and running as soon as possible.
The short answer is to take a look at the report of yesterday’s International Development Committee hearing, where the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend Mr Swayne and I spelled out in detail our commitment. We have provided almost £100 million and I hope that figure will increase. The difficulty is in getting the aid into the country itself. We are providing funds to support the UN envoy, so he can push forward the political process, too.
The Minister has told us he has the report but has not received it. He has told us that he is going to take it seriously, and will read it and judge on the evidence. He has also told us, however, that he will sit down with the Saudis and go through it with a fine-tooth comb. Does he not understand that he sounds as though he is readier to offer observations on international public relations than he is to ensure there is full observation of international humanitarian law?
As I said, I will sit down and invite the Saudi Arabians. We have two opportunities in the immediate future to go through this with a fine-tooth comb. Concerns have certainly been raised here, but we need to look at the evidence, compare it with what is going on and make sure proper processes are then followed.
The conflict in Yemen has been described as the forgotten war. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether the unrest in north Yemen is confined only to Yemen, or whether it is spilling over into Saudi territory?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. On the first point that this is seen as the forgotten war, this came up in the International Development Committee hearing yesterday. That almost does seem to be the case. It is perhaps a very sad reflection of the challenges we face, not just in the middle east but in Ukraine too. It is important that the international community does not turn its back on what is going on there. The scale of the humanitarian catastrophe that could be unveiled would be much bigger than what we see in Syria, Iraq or anywhere else. We need to focus on that.
On the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, she is absolutely right that the war is not contained in the country itself. Every single day, there are missile attacks from the Houthi-operated northern area of Yemen into southern Saudi Arabia. Over 300 Saudi Arabians have been killed because of what is going on there. That should not be ignored.
The Minister will recall that I wrote to him on
“We regularly raise our concerns with the Coalition through Ministerial, diplomatic and military channels”.
He went on:
“The Saudi Arabian authorities have given us assurances that they are complying with IHL”.
On the subject of cluster munitions, the Government apparently
“encouraged Saudi Arabia as a non-party to the Convention”— the convention against cluster munitions—to accede to it. Does the Minister understand why some Members are concerned that the Government are not adopting a particularly challenging attitude towards the Saudis, when combined with the Minister’s statement about being “disappointed” at the execution of 47 people in Saudi Arabia? Will the Minister do something concrete and ask the Ministry of Defence, which is responsible for investigating IHL breaches, to look at this and, if necessary, go over the ground of previous claims about IHL breaches?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the convention. We are encouraging that to happen. As I said in my opening remarks, on the exempt licences we have provided and the allegations we put forward, we matched them up with the information we have. We requested more information and where we are unsatisfied we have further discussions. Those are ongoing. We are calling for Saudi Arabia to make sure that, just as it launched an investigation into the attack on Médecins sans Frontières in Taiz, further investigations are opened as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Yemen is a relatively new country by any stretch of the imagination. In Ottoman times, we controlled one part of it as a protectorate. The glue that holds it together is not strong. It is very tribal based—there are about four or five major tribes—and underneath these super tribes there are sub-communities of loyalties. Each is not necessarily committed to one side or another, but is waiting to see which way the wind blows.
If the evidence in the UN report is upheld in due course—evidence that the Saudis have been using cluster weapons dropped by British aircraft on civilian populations, which can only exacerbate the political crisis in Yemen—will the Minister undertake to ban weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, or will he just give it a limp slap on the wrist?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman can imagine, I will not go into hypotheticals. I have committed to taking the report and speaking with the Saudi Arabians to see what we can do to move forward and to confirm what the recommendations in the report actually say.
Will my hon. Friend outline the extent of humanitarian aid Saudi Arabia gives to Yemen? I believe it is extensive. If so, is that the action of an irresponsible country?
The full coalition is doing a wide variety of things, in addition to the military campaign, which we read so much about in the papers. It is not just Saudi Arabia; it is Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and so forth. As areas are liberated, so the coalition follows on with stabilisation capability to provide security and support and to allow a transition from war to peace. All the Arab countries are very much involved in that.
Is this not a bit “Yes Minister”? The Minister has the report, but he has not received it, so he cannot do anything about it. Is that not a recipe for inaction? During the last invasion of Gaza, he said he would consider suspending arms sales to Israel, but by the time he had considered it, the damage had been done and several thousand civilians had been killed. Is that not what will happen here? Will he suspend arms sales? There is evidence of a breach of international humanitarian law. Will he do that now, look at the evidence and then make a decision?
I am being asked to comment on a leaked report. It is important that I have time to digest the full report, but I have said, even at this stage, before having had an opportunity to do that, that from what I understand of the report it is seriousness enough to deserve detailed scrutiny, not just here by us, but with the Saudi Arabians. I have already made that commitment to the House.
As the Minister will know, since the opening of the Suez canal in the 19th century, the waters around Yemen have been among the most key international trade routes, and therefore their security is of direct concern to us. Given that maintaining stability in Yemen is important to keeping those routes safe, what assessment has he made of the strength and ability of the Yemini armed forces to do that?
I can give a twofold answer. First, the Yemeni armed forces are receiving training, and the Yemini army is improving and able to hold ground, as well, not least around the port of Aden, which, as my hon. Friend says, is critical for safe passage in the area. Secondly, there is also the UN maritime capability. UN convoys need to be able to enter, but at the moment they are being denied by the Houthis.
The Under-Secretary of State responsible for the middle east is reportedly lobbying Saudi Arabia to promote its so-called human rights successes. Will the Minister please clarify whether that is the case and respond to criticism that it is little more than a PR exercise from a Government determined to maintain a multibillion pound arms trade with the Saudi regime?
I am sorry about the last comments. The hon. Lady and I have discussed these issues in the House, in Westminster Hall and, indeed, privately. I hope she will recognise that the words that have been written—I think by The Independent, which used a Google translator system to take some Arabic words and turn them into English—were not what I said at all. Let me make it very clear: we have now issued a press release confirming exactly what I said—an overview of what I raised at some of the meetings. I can assure her that at every single meeting I had, at every level, I raised human rights issues across a spectrum of matters that this House debates on a regular basis.
The unrelenting blanket bombing of Yemen, the murder of innocents and the destruction of property cause great concern. What also causes great concern is the abuse of human rights, as the Minister knows—I know he is responsive to that—but also the orchestrated persecution of Christians, who are arrested in their homes, put in prison and deported. Christians are second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. I believe that underlines the need to make all arms sales to Saudi Arabia conditional on improving human rights and stopping the persecution of Christians. What discussions has the Minister had with Saudi Arabia about that?
May I first pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman does in this area? He raises these important issues of human rights—not least for Christians, but for others as well—on a regular basis. He is absolutely right to say that Christians are not receiving the same level of support or, indeed, rights in parts of the middle east. These are things we raise on a regular basis. If I may, I will speak to the hon. Gentleman offline to talk in more detail about this, because that would be more appropriate.
Both in Prime Minister’s questions and when we had the statement on the executions, I raised the issue of the Médecins sans Frontières hospital in Saada in Yemen that was hit by missiles. We are providing those very weapons, so can the Minister confirm that that specific incident has been investigated?
May I pay tribute to the work the hon. Lady does? I know she comes to this House with a huge amount of experience from the medical side, and I think the House is all the wiser for it. She raises an important issue. I think I gave confirmation earlier that that investigation is already going ahead.
The UK Government have licensed billions of pounds of weapons to Saudi Arabia. It is now recorded that UK forces have been present at Saudi weapons control centres during operations in Yemen. The UN report says that Saudi air strikes have been systematically targeting civilians, and the Minister today has acknowledged concerns and a need for improvement, so what exactly will it take for him to acknowledge, knowing all this, that we have a clear responsibility to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia?
I do ask, with huge respect, that this narrative that somehow British soldiers are involved in the targeting cell is stopped. The Prime Minister made that absolutely clear yesterday—indeed, I think in response to the Scottish nationalists—saying that we are not part of the coalition. We are not in the targeting cell, and therefore we are not privy to that information. What we are calling for is absolutely the robust process that must be followed if an incident is reported.
The United Kingdom has practically built the modern Saudi state. It was UK workers who extracted the oil and built the roads and UK doctors and nurses who provided modern medicine—plenty evidence of the British carrot. However, I think the Minister is in a stronger position than he perhaps appreciates, so when will we see a bit of the British stick, beyond the usual platitudes that we hear from the Dispatch Box?
Again, I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman offline. He is aware of what we try to do overtly, but also quietly, to advance change in Saudi Arabia. It is difficult: it is a very new state. We should also reflect on the fact that the royal family—the leadership there—is on the liberal wing of a very conservative country. There is a pace of change that works, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to see it move any faster, he should bear in mind that a possible consequence could be to see Daesh spreading—it has made it clear that it wants to take over custodianship of the two holy cities, and that is exactly what we could get. Therefore, I absolutely stand with him on wanting to effect change, but it needs to happen at a pace that is workable.
A transparent Government would welcome the setting up of the Committees on Arms Export controls. Instead of saying that it is not within the gift of the Government, will the Minister advise us what the Government are doing to facilitate the setting up of the Committee and, if there are any problems, what those problems are?
I am calling for it; I want it; I think it is very important. It is not, however, in my gift. I understand that it is the responsibility of the three Committee Chairmen, one of whom is smiling, whose brief is internationally facing. It is for them. [Interruption.] I stand corrected; the Leader of the House is in his place. It is vital that the Committee is up and running as soon as possible. If there is one positive outcome from today, it is, I hope, that this Committee will emerge as soon as possible.