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Yemen: Political and Humanitarian Situation

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 5th July 2017.

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Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth 4:30 pm, 5th July 2017

As my right hon. Friend knows, I wholeheartedly agree with her comments, and I hope that all aspiring Chairs to the relevant Committees would perhaps make a public commitment that they are willing to set up the Committees on Arms Export Controls as soon as possible, as part of their internal election manifestos.

As you will be aware, Mrs Moon, UK arms exports are bound by the obligations within the arms trade treaty, the EU common position on arms exports and the consolidated EU and UK arms licensing criteria; I make particular reference to criterion 2(c) of the EU common position. All of them refer to the recipient country’s respect for international law and require that export licences are not granted where there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

Mrs Moon, you will also be aware of the judgment that is expected any day now in the judicial review into whether Ministers have properly adhered to criterion 2(c) of the EU common position. I am conscious that these matters are potentially sub judice, but it is clear that some Ministers recognise that they have been treading on very thin ice with regard to UK compliance with the law in this matter. I draw the House’s attention to a partially redacted letter that was recently released due to the proceedings. It was sent by the Secretary of State for International Trade to the Foreign Secretary on 2 February 2017. It states:

“I am concerned that the issue of export licensing to Saudi Arabia continues to be finely balanced...To this end I ask that you commission a further detailed assessment of Criterion 2c and send me updated advice...In the event that your assessment of the Criterion 2c threshold remains the same, I ask that you seek advice from” senior Government lawyers, whose names have been redacted,

“before making your recommendation.”

I will be frank—this looks like an exercise in covering one’s own actions by the International Trade Secretary, who could ultimately bear responsibility for the authorisation of licences.

Licences have continued to be authorised in huge quantities. New statistics show that new licences under category M4 from October to December 2016 to Saudi Arabia totalled a staggering £1.2 billion. So, can the Minister tell us categorically today whether the assessment requested by the International Trade Secretary was produced, and whether all Ministers have continued to be satisfied at all times that we are adhering to the law? Have any permanent civil service officials issued accounting officer advice or any other warnings to Ministers at any point in the last 12 months on this specific issue? And can he tell us what contingency plans have been prepared in the event of an unfavourable outcome for the Government in the judicial review?

In spite of the grave humanitarian situation in Yemen and our obligations under these treaties, the UK have supplied arms worth a total of £3.4 billion to the Saudi Arabian military during this conflict. Moreover, British companies, contractors and citizens are at the heart of what is happening. I draw the House’s attention to a recent advert that shows just how deeply we are involved in this conflict. BAE Systems recently advertised for “Weapons Load Technicians” at a salary of £38,119, located in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, with a job purpose

“to accomplish safe reliable loading of munitions to Tornado aircraft”.

The arms trade treaty, which I was proud to work on, forbids the authorisation of the supply of arms where there is an overriding risk of a violation of international humanitarian law. We have signed up to such commitments, so we need to adhere to them. They are the basis on which a legitimate, responsible defence industry in this country is based, but I have deep concerns that we have not been adhering to them in this case. Indeed, that is the view of others globally. The European Parliament and individual EU member states are also taking steps against arms exports. For example, in March the Dutch Parliament voted to deny arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

This conflict in Yemen has profound consequences for the entire balance of power in the middle east. Despite its superior firepower, the Saudi-led coalition has not been able to achieve much progress in recent months and the military situation can at best be described as a hot stalemate. The coalition has air superiority but it does not have the ground troops to drive the Houthi-Saleh side out of the territory that it holds, and some observers are rightly worried that Yemen might become, or is already, a destination for Daesh fighters or others associated with Daesh who have been expelled from other locations around the middle east.

I will draw people’s attention to another worrying development. Reprieve has been working closely with colleagues on the ground to document the impact of recent US military action in Yemen, which has taken an approach under President Trump that is distinctly different from the one taken under President Obama, both in the approval of and the legal guidance around strike targets, and there have been unprecedented assaults on villages full of civilians. Of course, the UK plays a role in providing extensive operational and intelligence assistance for US strikes, including the location of UK military personnel in US air bases in places such as Nevada. Recent US drone strikes have killed and wounded civilians in Yemen, and they have been followed up by Navy Seal operations into a number of locations, including Yakla and Al-Juba, which have resulted in the deaths of significant numbers of civilians.

I can understand it when operations are being conducted against legitimate and tightly defined targets, including those potentially linked to al-Qaeda, Daesh and others, but I cannot understand how these operations, which seem to have had widely loosened rules of engagement, can be conducted in a place that is already enduring significant civilian casualties and significant disruption.

I will just quote a grandfather from the village of Yakla, where the first US military operation in Yemen took place in January. He said:

“In the…morning, after the operation ended, I went to the scene and saw the volume of destruction. I saw…dead bodies everywhere. While I was searching among the bodies, I found my daughter Fateem lying dead in the street with her child in her arms. She was covered with blood. I did not imagine this could happen. I cannot forget those painful moments…The child was slightly injured in the hand by a bullet that hit and left his mother’s body. Such a scene no one could imagine nor comprehend—this level of criminality and killing.”

The war in Yemen has destroyed the institutions that keep society running, such as utilities, banks, food systems, hospitals and, most importantly, water and sanitation supplies. We are failing the people of Yemen more than ever. Time and time again, research has shown that it is not only violence and bombings that are the killer of civilians in conflict, but the illness, hunger and poverty that come after that. Yemen is a case in point. The deliberate targeting of humanitarian assistance, warehousing facilities and humanitarian operatives, and the blockades are all violations of international humanitarian law and are, in my view, tantamount to war crimes.

Those of us who have influence over the parties to the conflict have a particular responsibility to act now, both at the international level—we have heard about the discussions at the UN—and, in particular, in our relationship with the Saudi Arabians. We have mentioned the situation in Hodeidah. Whatever happens in terms of any military conflict there, we cannot allow a blockade that results in a famine in the country. The international community is not doing enough to provide resources. I hope the Minister will tell us of the efforts he is making to get other countries to pay their fair share to the appeals, which are significantly underfunded. Only a third are funded overall, and only a third in the water and sanitation cluster are funded.

Although I welcome the UK Government’s efforts to secure the presidential statement, which we mentioned, it was quite frankly extraordinary to read the read-out of the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson’s call this week with Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, which made absolutely no mention of Yemen. I find that particularly extraordinary, given that he led the coalition activities in his previous role, which I described earlier, and given the horrific worsening of the situation in recent weeks. Does the Minister have an explanation for that, or is Yemen simply not important enough for the Prime Minister to mention? Or is it, as I have been told in private on a number of occasions over recent weeks, that the Government are admitting their failure to influence Saudi Arabia on this issue?

Despite all the claims of a special relationship, the facts are stark: no further reports issued by the Joint Incident Assessment Team on any of the hundreds of allegations; continued civilian deaths due to the bombings; a growing humanitarian catastrophe; and a worrying escalation of US direct involvement, resulting in the deaths of civilians, possibly with UK involvement. What is the vision? What is the plan? Where is the coherence across Government policy? Or is this all just too difficult?