Yemen: UK Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 20th February 2019.

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Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:31 pm, 20th February 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the publication of the report by the International Relations Committee Yemen: giving peace a chance on 16 February, what plans they have to reassess the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.

Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade

My Lords, we welcome the House of Lords International Relations Committee’s report on Yemen, and thank the committee for engaging on this hugely important issue. The UK is doing all it can to help the parties to find a way to end this devastating conflict, and the Government will respond to the report in due course. With regard to arms export licensing, the Government take their responsibility very seriously, and will not grant a licence if to do so would be inconsistent with the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. We rigorously assess every application on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated criteria, drawing on all available information. The consolidated criteria set out the policy framework for assessing export licence applications, and they remain as announced to Parliament in a Written Ministerial Statement of 25 March 2014.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, the Government say that they are narrowly on the right side of international law in licensing arms sales to Saudi Arabia—but the International Relations Committee, which has just been so praised, says that they are narrowly on the wrong side of international law, as these weapons are:

“highly likely to be the cause of significant civilian casualties”.

As this appears to be a fine line, what specific evidence would the Government need from the UN, investigators and NGOs to be pushed over the edge and deem those arms sales illegal?

Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that this is a very finely balanced decision; there are respectable arguments on both sides. The Government remain confident that we are compliant with our obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty. The key criterion here, of course, is that there has to be a clear risk that the items might be used for serious violations of international humanitarian law in in future. In terms of the sources that we use, in a recent judicial review the court was very clear that there were significant qualitative differences between the risk analysis that the Government could undertake—the information that we got—and the information supplied to NGOs.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations Committee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, for referring to the report of your Lordships’ Committee on International Relations, and to my noble friend for her reply, but will she undertake, given that this is probably one of the largest and most horrific humanitarian disasters of recent times, given our involvement because of our export supplies, to use all leverage, including possible suspension of arms export licences, to put pressure on all parties—I emphasise, all parties—to the Stockholm agreement, to hold the ceasefire, get the food sitting on the docks of Hodeidah to the starving millions and discourage further outbreaks of violence and bloodshed in this appalling situation, which all of us have a responsibility to do everything we can to halt?

Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade

I thank my noble friend for that question and for chairing the committee. It is, as the Secretary-General of the UN has said, one of the worst humanitarian crises. We keep export licences under close and continual review, and we undertake to continue to do that. In terms of the peace process, we are doing all we can to find an end. Our Foreign Secretary and US Secretary of State Pompeo co-hosted a meeting of the Yemeni quad. Our commitment to a peace process, which is at a critical juncture, is absolute, and we are putting our full weight behind the UN peace process, including additional contributions to support the facility. We have also been active in lobbying the international community on rapid, safe, unhindered humanitarian access to the ports, as my noble friend asks.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade)

My Lords, I have the pleasure of serving on the committee under the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and I returned from a visit to the wider region yesterday. Since the war began there, the UK has sold £5.5 billion-worth of arms to the coalition, which includes training in targeting and weapons use. I visited the Sudan, where there have been an estimated 14,000 militia—including, the UN has verified, nearly 1,000 child soldiers—in the conflict. It is simply not acceptable for the United Kingdom to be satisfied that we are even narrowly on the right side of international humanitarian law. The situation is so severe and the situation is now so tense with the peace process that, for the United Kingdom to give the moral leadership which we currently do by humanitarian assistance and diplomatically, we can no longer effectively turn a blind eye to the need for a pause on arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. That will provide the moral leadership so that we can be fully on the right side of international humanitarian law.

Photo of Baroness Fairhead Baroness Fairhead The Minister of State, Department for International Trade

I can assure the House that we are taking this extremely seriously: this is a really significant issue. In terms of the information and assessments we use, we regularly look at various strands and all the analysis to make our judgment. The noble Lord referred to targeting. We are also ensuring that advice is there so that the lessons we have learned from previous conflicts are used so that civilians are not targeted. I can assure the House that we will be doing everything we can to continue to support the peace process and the much-needed humanitarian aid. We have already contributed £570 million since 2015. We have just committed to a further three years of almost £100 million to support child malnutrition. We understand the seriousness of this, and we are actively working at all levels.