Campaigners criticise government after it admits UK defence personnel did not have access to all information required to decide Saudi attitudes to such laws
( The Guardian)—The Foreign Office has concluded there is no clear risk of serious Saudi breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen, even though it admits UK defence personnel cannot “form a complete understanding” of the Saudi-led coalition’s attitudes to such laws because they “do not have access to all the information required”.
Ministers have previously said that UK forces advising the Saudis on airstrike techniques in Riyadh are able to form an impression of attitudes to international humanitarian law.
The recommendation led to rows between MPs across party lines, as some Labour MPs joined with Conservatives to stave off an attack on the UK defence industry, and the UK’s strategic relationship with Gulf states.
The government response to the report totally rejects the need to suspend arms sales. It says ministers are not opposed to an international inquiry but continue to believe the Saudis should be allowed to conduct their own inquiries first.
Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have been responsible for 60% of the 2,067 civilians killed in the conflict over a yearlong span starting on 1 July 2015, according to the United Nations.
The largely predictable government response centres on its statement that it takes all allegations of violations of humanitarian law seriously, and regularly makes representations to the Saudi authorities, but has not concluded any such breaches have occurred in Yemen by Saudi Arabia to warrant the withdrawal of arms exports licences.
The two select committees had concluded: “Since September 2015, the Saudis have announced the results of nine investigations, despite having received evidence of at least 185 incidents from the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Moreover, a number of the Saudi investigations reported results which contradict evidence documented by the UN. This raises concerns about the credibility of the process.”
The government response does raise questions about how its judgment was reached, however, as it states: “UK Defence personnel are unable to form a complete understanding of the coalition’s regard for international humanitarian law in Yemen as they do not have access to all the information required to do so.”
But the committee report insists that the UK “has not been directly involved in investigations undertaken by the Saudi-led joint investigations team, has not provided any specific operational advice to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for operations in Yemen and has not provided training on political authorisation of military operations”.
The government says UK officers in Saudi are involved in liaison and training work, saying: “It is entirely right that we should share techniques for minimising civilian casualties with other countries to ensure their military campaigns can be conducted in the most humane manner possible.”
It adds: “These liaison officers are not embedded personnel taking part in the Saudi Arabian-led operations and are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets, nor in the Saudi targeting decision-making process. All UK personnel remain under UK command and control.”
The statement continues that “insights obtained by UK Defence personnel into Saudi processes and procedures contribute to our overall view on the approach and attitude of Saudi Arabia to International humanitarian law.
“Saudi Coalition members 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 countries to really understand whether anything went wrong, apply lessons learned and take any follow up action.”
Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: “The government is in denial about the devastating impact of the Saudi-led bombardment and its own complicity in it. This is a very weak and shameful response and makes clear that arms company profits are being prioritised over the human rights and lives of Yemeni people.
“The evidence from the UN, the House of Commons committees and others has been overwhelming, yet the government has refused to act. We are always being told UK arms export controls are rigorous and robust, but this shows nothing could be further from the truth.”