I should like to thank Hilary Benn for raising this important matter and to pay tribute to him for his work on keeping the House up to date on these matters and providing the scrutiny we need. Recognising the importance of the issue, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary issued a written ministerial statement today to update Parliament on the situation in Yemen, and 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. 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 Adel al-Jubeir, on
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. This follows international practice. The coalition has the best insight into its own military procedures and will be able to conduct the most thorough and conclusive investigations. This will also allow the coalition forces to understand what went wrong and to apply the lessons learned in the best possible way. This is the standard that we set for ourselves and our allies. In this respect, Saudi Arabia announced more detail of how incidents of concern involving coalition forces are investigated on
I also want to reiterate that clarifications made in the
“important to make clear that neither the MOD nor the FCO reaches a conclusion as to whether or not an IHL 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 MOD monitors incidents of alleged international humanitarian law violations using the available information. This has been used to form an overall view on Saudi Arabia’s approach and attitude to international humanitarian law. In turn, that informs the risk assessment made under the consolidated criteria on whether there is a risk that something 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 the breach of international humanitarian law. Instead, as criterion 2(c) requires, we are acting to make an overall judgment.
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 in order to clarify that, but as soon as I became aware of it I made a statement and wrote to the right hon. 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.
I thank the Minister for his reply. As he knows, there have been many reports by the UN and others of breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen by both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition, which uses British military equipment. Ministers have been repeatedly questioned about that and the Government told the House that they
“have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL by the coalition.”
Then, as we have just been told, on
“been unable to assess that there has been a breach of IHL by the Saudi-led Coalition.”
That is the very opposite of what the House had been repeatedly told. I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say, but he offered no satisfactory explanation of why that happened. First, will he do so now? It was not a minor correction but a consistent failure to provide Members with accurate answers.
Secondly, the mistakes were identified on
“any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
Why did it take so long?
Thirdly, after months of the Government being apparently incapable of doing an assessment of international humanitarian law, they have managed to undertake one during the recess in relation to the arms export tests, which state that a licence should not be granted
“if there is a clear risk... of a serious violation” of IHL. The Foreign Secretary said in a written statement only this morning:
“Having regard to all the information available to us, we assess that this test has not been met.”
When is an assessment not an assessment? Will the Minister now tell us what detailed assessment preceded the conclusion that was reported to the House today and what information it drew upon? Will he publish both?
Finally, will the Government now suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia until they are able to assure the House that they have done a proper assessment and can explain why they believe that international humanitarian law has not been breached in Yemen when the UN clearly says that it has?
Let us take a step back and make it clear why Saudi Arabia is leading the coalition to support President Hadi. It is allowed to because of UN resolution 2216, of which the right hon. Gentleman is fully aware. Were it not for that, the atrocities that we see and the devastation that is taking place would be a lot worse. The Houthis would have pushed far down through Sana’a, the capital, and all the way to the port of Aden. It would be a humanitarian catastrophe.
Having said that, we absolutely need to make sure that our allies and partners are honouring international humanitarian law, which is why we have regularly raised these matters. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to join me when the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister comes to this place on Wednesday to address any questions that are put by parliamentarians; it is at 10 o’clock and the right hon. Gentleman is more than welcome to come. I will make sure, because I will be moderating the event, that he is able to put some of these questions to the Foreign Minister.
On the general point, the right hon. Gentleman simply repeated the difference in the two lines, which I have endeavoured to correct. I have answered more than 90 parliamentary questions on this matter. We found out that two of them were incorrectly written, with a further trawl showing that four more were incorrectly written, and we immediately decided to correct the matter. I agree that the timing, first in replying to the various heads of the Committees, was slower than it should have been. If he knows me, he will know that I would not sit on this matter; the reason for this was simply that there was a change of government, and there were delays—I did not even know whether I was going to continue in this portfolio. As soon as I became aware of the situation, I made sure that the necessary information was out there and that we did a further trawl to make sure nothing else was erroneous. I then wrote to the relevant Committee Chairs and to the right hon. Gentleman.
Will the Minister confirm that it is in our interest, and in their interest, that our regional allies in the Saudi-led coalition comply with international humanitarian law in their operations in Yemen? Will he remind the House that the Gulf Co-operation Council states are our allies and that the coalition is operating under the authority of a unanimously adopted UN resolution, in response to an illegal usurpation of power in Yemen?
I am grateful for the question, which gives me licence to spell out the fact that this is new territory for Saudi Arabia. We have learnt to make sure that when errors are made on the battlefield and there is collateral damage, we put our hand up and say that something has happened that should not have happened; that is exactly what the Americans did in Kunduz, in Afghanistan, when the hospital was hit. We are dealing here with a conservative nation not used to such exposure, and I am pleased to say that we are making progress to make sure that it answers to the international scrutiny that it must answer to.
I echo strongly the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn; the incorrect answers that he and other Members were given were totally unacceptable, as was the time in which they were corrected, which has added insult to injury. It is clear that the assurances this House was previously given on breaches of humanitarian law have proved inaccurate. Do other assurances that we have been given remain valid? In May, the then Minister for Defence Procurement, Mr Dunne, told this House that there was “no evidence” that coalition forces in Yemen had used cluster munitions in civilian areas. Indeed, he claimed that the cluster munitions found in Yemen, which had been responsible for the deaths and maiming of many innocent civilians, had come from “previous conflicts” in the region. Does the Foreign Office stand by that assessment? In May, we also asked a question that that Minister repeatedly failed to answer, so I give today’s Minister an opportunity to answer it: have the coalition forces in Yemen used weapons or planes manufactured in Britain in this conflict? Have they used them to drop cluster munitions? Have they used them to commit breaches of international humanitarian law? If we simply do not know the answers to those questions, is it right to continue selling weapons and planes to Saudi Arabia until we have answers?
The hon. Lady began by saying that it was unacceptable that these erroneous statements were put out, and I agree with her, which is why I wrote and took measures to make sure that the record was corrected. I make it very clear that the profile of interest in Yemen, with more than 90 written ministerial questions on the matter, is such that we had to correct the issue. Two errors were found, with a further four found on a trawl. That is why I wrote the necessary letters and produced the necessary statements to correct the matter, and I apologised to the Chamber. I hope that that apology is recognised; this was not some big plot or conspiracy to mislead. Our policy remains extremely clear on where we stand on our support for our friends in the Gulf.
The hon. Lady raises the sale of cluster munitions by Britain, which did happen before we signed the convention on cluster munitions—I think she is referring to the BL-755. I have seen one piece of evidence on that incident, and the bomb was unexploded; the bomblets themselves were in the case.
I am not saying that it was okay at all. What I am saying is that as soon as we found out about it, we asked Saudi Arabia to do exactly what any other country should do in the same situation, which is to determine what is going on. As soon as we have more information, we will certainly share it with the House. I invite the hon. Lady to pose those questions to the Saudi Foreign Minister when he comes to the House on Wednesday.
It is tragic when anyone who is innocent is killed in such a conflict. I visited the Saudi-led air operations centre some months ago in Riyadh. I specifically asked the pilots and the commanders about their rules on weapons release on targets in Yemen, and I was very reassured by their answers. It was clear that their procedures now seem to be as good as our own. Does the Minister agree with me?
There is no doubt that this has been a learning curve for Saudi Arabia. The conference that I attended and represented Britain at last week in Jeddah moved us forward from conflict and a military approach to looking at what agreement can be made politically and militarily so that we can put the matter behind us and create the stability that we need in that country.
The UK has a clear role in the conflict, and yet we are still no closer to learning why this Government have failed to carry out their own independent investigation into whether international humanitarian law was breached. Hospitals have been bombed and civilians have been killed. We must end arms sales to Saudi Arabia now and conduct our own investigation. Ministers must remove their heads from the sand and apologise to this House for attempting to brush the issue under the carpet. Parliament was misled six times. Rather than facing the music, did Ministers deliberately hide this knowledge from the House until the last day before the recess? This House and the public deserve more respect from this Government. A humanitarian disaster continues to unfold in front of our very eyes in the Yemen. We need answers and action today; nothing less will do. Will the Minister commit to ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady has adopted that tone. It is absolutely right that she holds the Government to account, and, in all fairness, she has been very consistent in doing that, but I have not been brushing any issues under the carpet—quite the contrary. I have been as open as I can be about these matters. I make it very clear to the House, as I said in my letter to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that if we are not satisfied with the Saudi Arabian investigation, we will not oppose an independent investigation. First, though, we must honour international standards and allow Saudi Arabia to conduct its own investigations, as we would be doing in similar circumstances.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for her words. She is absolutely right that the G20 posed a huge opportunity for the Prime Minister to share thoughts and concerns about a number of matters pertaining to the middle east. I am not aware of what happened, but I will find out whether she was able to take up such an opportunity. I was certainly able to do so when I was with the Foreign Ministers from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and John Kerry last week. As I have said, there is a further opportunity for this House to raise those questions too. My right hon. Friend also raised the issue of the cluster munitions convention. I have invited Saudi Arabia to consider signing it as an indication of where it wants to move to in the future.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and correcting the record in respect of the errors that occurred. He will know that three Members of this House—Mrs Drummond, my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz and myself—were born in Yemen. Our fear is that Yemen is bleeding to death. There is a massive humanitarian crisis, the worst in the world. What is being done to get food in to the population of Yemen and to make sure that that happens as quickly as possible?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done. He obviously has a personal interest in the matter, as do others, and he has raised this subject on many occasions. I am pleased that he has raised the huge concern, which I think he House shares, about the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding in Yemen. For example, in July only 43% of the monthly food needs and only 23% of the fuel needs were met in that country. That is because there is no access or no complete access to the country. We need to see aid coming in not just through the port of Aden, but Hodeida further up the west coast opened up to provide access to the northern part of the country.
My hon. Friend raises a valid point. The process that we follow is to encourage any country to conduct its own investigation, as we would do. As I stated in answer to a previous question, if we find those investigations wanting, we will call for an independent investigation. As I said in my opening remarks, eight publications have already come forward, having analysed certain breaches or events that have taken place, and there will be further publications on other events in the near future.
Is it not a fact that the Saudi-led coalition to support the Yemen Government is clearly targeting civilian areas? Can the Minister remind us why we are supporting it?
The conduct of war in Yemen is complicated. Much of the conflict is taking place in urban areas. The Houthis are using civilians as guards in order to deliberately take the battle into the towns and cities. It is very complicated indeed. We have encouraged Saudi Arabia and the coalition to make sure that as little collateral damage takes place as possible. The hon. Lady seems to suggest that if we did not support UN resolution 2216 and if we did not support President Hadi’s request for support, somehow Yemen would be in a better situation. I can tell her that quite the opposite would be the case.
I can confirm that. As this House is only too aware, where there is conflict and instability, it is very easy for extremism to flourish, and Yemen is a great example of that. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of the most active branches of al-Qaeda, responsible for the printer cartridge bombing and for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. As long as there is instability, it will continue to flourish. The port of Mukalla in the south—an entire city—was until recently run by al-Qaeda. That is why we need a political solution for that country.
Just over a year ago my hon. Friend Mrs Ellman and I presented a petition to this House about the dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen. In the light of today’s statement, may I urge the Minister to revisit the issue of immediate relatives and dependants of British citizens who cannot get out of Yemen, many of whom are stuck in areas that do not have access to humanitarian aid workers and who are having to wait up to 12 months for a decision on their applications to come to Britain? May I urge him to work with his colleagues in the Home Office to speed up this process?
The hon. Lady raises two important and related issues. The first is to do with the international humanitarian support for the country. This is something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will be raising at the UN General Assembly to see what more the international community can do. On the migrant situation and those being granted refugee status, I will raise that with my Home Office colleagues.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point—the responsible role that Iran can and should take given where it is now in relation to the nuclear deal. If it wants to play a helpful role on the international stage in the region, then it needs to check its proxy influence in places such as Bahrain, Yemen and Damascus, and indeed in Baghdad as well.
Only last month, Oxfam claimed that the UK Government had switched from being an enthusiastic backer of the arms trade treaty to one of the most significant violators. The Government have lost immense credibility over this saga, and that was not helped by last-minute retractions. Do they not accept that if they echoed calls for an international independent inquiry, the added transparency and accountability would be a benefit to all stakeholders involved?
I do not agree with the first part of the hon. Lady’s question, as she might guess, but the second part I do agree with. The process that we must follow is to allow and encourage Saudi Arabia to make sure that it does the necessary investigations, as it is now starting to do. If we find that those investigations are wanting, it is absolutely right that we should then call for an independent international investigation to be carried out.
Of course Iran has equal responsibility under international humanitarian law, as well as Saudi Arabia. The Minister, as the surviving Minister in the Foreign Office, will know that several months ago, when it was revealed that the UK was supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia for the Yemen campaign, the justification for the Government’s position was that those weapons were accurate and needed by Saudi Arabia, and that the technical targeting assistance was being provided by the British to make sure that those accurate weapons were even more accurate. Given that that is the case, why have so many weapons gone astray?
We have a very robust relationship with Saudi Arabia. We are able to raise matters in confidence and in private that we would not be able to raise in public, and that applies to many of the issues that have been raised today. However, this is a legitimate coalition, and it is allowed to use weapons that are provided and sold by the United Kingdom.
One of the accusations against the Saudis is that UK-made cluster munitions have been used in Yemen. The former procurement Minister, Mr Dunne, told the House before the recess that the last time the UK sold cluster munitions was 30 years ago. What assessment has the Minister or the MOD made of the usability of those weapons and whether they have ever actually been used?
I recognise the interest and also the expertise that the hon. Gentleman brings to the House given his work as a Minister in the MOD. As a reservist and an ex-member of the regular forces, I would not go anywhere near any ordnance that was over 20 years old. The cluster munitions that are being discussed are well past their sell-by date. They are dangerous and should not be used by anybody.
I welcome the efforts that my hon. Friend’s Department has made in helping the Saudis with their application of international humanitarian law in the Yemeni armed conflict. Has he used any of our wonderful British imams who have served in the armed forces of the United Kingdom, many of whom have studied the sayings of Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, who set out many of the rules of war that would apply very well in these circumstances, to remind the Saudis that these are not western concepts at all but actually Islamic themes?
My hon. Friend touches on quite a deep issue that reflects his knowledge and expertise in this area, to which I pay tribute. I spent some of the summer reading the works of Gertrude Bell, which I know he has studied. She illustrates, and learned over a long period, the complexity that we are dealing with in today’s Saudi Arabia. We have to understand and recognise that it is a conservative society which is being obliged and encouraged to move at a far faster pace than many other countries in the world, not least in the legitimacy of running a complex and sustained campaign of war.
The key test for the UK Government’s continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia in relation to international humanitarian law is whether there is a clear risk that those weapons might be used in the commission of a serious violation of that law. If the Government do not consider the repeated bombing of hospitals, schools and markets, and the designation of whole cities such as Ma’aran as war zones, a serious violation of humanitarian law, what does fall into that category?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a number of events that have taken place and are being looked into by Saudi Arabia, but there is also a comparison with what happened with the United States, when a hospital was also attacked. The question is whether any nation puts its hand up and says that a mistake has been made or whether it tries to cover things up and say that they did not happen, which would be a breach of international humanitarian law.
These were not minor corrections issued on
My hon. Friend makes his point, but I will just say that each case is considered in its own right. Each arms export is considered under the ruthless criteria under which we operate. We look to the future, to the intent of that country and at how those weapon systems will be used. As things stand, we do not believe that they will be used in breach of IHL.
It is rare that I agree with Sir Edward Leigh, but communications from Ministers and the Government on this issue have been positively Kafkaesque to say the least. The lack of clarity in the information given in answers and to Committees of this House is not acceptable. Let us get back to the facts, Mr Speaker. Saudi Arabia admitted on
Thousands of sorties have been made not just by Saudi Arabia but by the entire coalition. Errors have been made as well. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening statement, which implied that I have either misled or not been up front about what is going on. I have been very clear indeed. If he wants to talk about the specific issues that he has raised today, I am more than happy to meet him outside the Chamber and we can look into them. I have encouraged Saudi Arabia to look into every one of those cases and provide a report.
The Minister will be aware that sometimes with situations in the middle east we must be careful what we wish for because of what might come in its place. Does he agree that Saudi Arabia could do a lot to reinforce people’s confidence in its operations by joining the international ban on cluster munitions, to which we are already party?
That is absolutely right. I know that there is an intention among the establishment in Saudi Arabia to move forward in that regard, but as I have touched on in the past, this is a conservative society led by a liberal wing of that society. It needs to move at a pace that is workable for Saudi Arabia, and a major step forward would be the consideration of signing the cluster weapons convention.
It is clear that the situation in Yemen is not improving and respected organisations are calling for independent investigation of violations of international humanitarian law, yet in the second quarter of 2016 this Government, and the Minister’s colleagues in the Home Office, refused 13 asylum applications, and 57 applications from Yemeni citizens remain pending. Will the Minister speak with his colleagues in the Home Office and impress on them the need for certainty for those Yemeni citizens that they will not be removed to a country that is a war zone because of bombs that we are selling to the Saudis?
Just to clarify, am I right in thinking that the hon. Lady expects Yemenis based in the UK to be returned to Yemen?
I will raise that. This question has already been raised by a Labour Member and I will look at it again, but my understanding is that nobody is being returned to a war zone.
I would just make the point that it is not uncommon for the same point to be raised more than once in the course of an interrogation of a Minister, a fact with which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is intensely familiar.
The answer to that is yes—that is absolutely the case. We have now moved forward in our discussions. The Houthis, after walking out of the discussions in Kuwait, are now working with the UN envoy, and I hope that we will be able to move forward from the phase of war and armed conflict to one of political resolution.
Will the Minister please tell the House, very simply, whether any weapons or planes manufactured in the United Kingdom have been used in the conflict in Yemen and, in particular, whether they have been used against civilians?
I cannot answer the latter part of that question but I can say that, yes, we have sold weapons and aircraft systems to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition which have been used legitimately, following a request by President Hadi under resolution 2216.
Will the Minister confirm that Britain’s international aid commitment to Yemen more than doubled this year to £85 million, making us the fourth largest donor in the world? What steps has he taken to ensure further unhindered access of that humanitarian aid to the places that need it most?
I can confirm that we are the fourth largest donor. My hon. Friend is right to say that the figure is £85 million and, looking at my Department for International Development colleagues, I hope we will be able to increase it. I know that every effort will be made at the UN General Assembly in the coming weeks to rally other countries to provide more financial support and to make sure that it reaches those people who genuinely require it.
I cannot comment, for the obvious reason that we do not discuss intelligence matters at the Dispatch Box.
It is not in my gift to make that judgment—the Foreign Office can only make recommendations—but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, if we were to find breaches of international humanitarian law, that would change our view of whether future arms exports should take place.
The Saudi Government have been trusted with the oversight of weapons licensed by the UK Government and used in Yemen, with disastrous consequences. Does the Minister consider that to be misjudgement? Should not oversight be more independent, and should not an independent inquiry begin now, without delay?
I think that Saudi Arabia has been slow in acknowledging international scrutiny of the various weapons systems that have been used in the conflict itself. Having said that, we are seeing an advancement in its processes, and it is those processes that we must now lean on to make sure that Saudi Arabia puts its hand up if there is a mistake and any collateral damage.
The Minister has said that the Government are unable to draw conclusions about individual allegations of human rights breaches, but will he comment on how the overall risk assessment has changed in the light of the reported breaches, and how worried is he that weapons manufactured here in the UK have been involved?
We look to the future to see the intent of the country and how the weapons might be used, and whether there is transparency on misuse and collateral damage. That is why we lean on the Saudi Arabians and encourage them to produce the necessary reports that provide the light for which the NGOs, we and, indeed, other members of the international community are looking.
In answer to my question on
“continue to monitor the situation closely”.
In the intervening seven months, what further information has been gleaned by the Government? Exactly what has to happen in Yemen before this Government recognise a breach of international humanitarian law and stop arming Saudi Arabia?
I am not familiar with the exact reports that the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but I would be happy to speak to him in more detail. If he is referring to the report by the UN committee of experts, in which I think more than 100 allegations were made, that UN team did not actually set foot in Yemen when they compiled that evidence. Having said that, we passed that on to the Saudi Arabians for them to comment on what had happened.
The Minister has said that Saudi Arabia, in the first instance, should be allowed to investigate any breaches of international humanitarian law, but with both the Saudi joint incidents assessment team and the Yemeni national commission of inquiry failing to carry out proper investigations, does he not think that it is time to press for a full independent investigation into what has gone on?
Those two organisations do slightly separate work. What we expect from the Saudi Arabians—they acknowledge that they have been slow to put the processes in place—is that they investigate any alleged violations and provide a full report. The Yemeni investigation team is looking at human rights violations on the ground that have been conducted under the fog of war—the use of child soldiers, for example—which is quite a separate matter.
Why did we have to wait until the very last day before the recess for the corrections to the parliamentary record to be produced? Why could that not have happened the day before, so that the Minister could have taken oral questions the next day? We have had to wait all summer long, and we have finally had a question session but we still have no answers. I would have thought that the Government had had time enough to be able to answer some of the questions raised by hon. Members today.
There were answers. As soon as I found out about the matter, I wrote to the necessary Committee Chairs. If there had been an opportunity before we broke up for the recess, I certainly would have taken it. If it is any consolation, I apologise to the House for not coming to this place earlier to put that on the record. I make that very clear indeed.