37.Following the Arab uprisings of 2011, President Saleh, who had been in power in Yemen since 1978, signed the Gulf Cooperation Council Plan to transfer power to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi. The change in leadership did not lead to any real change for the population, for whom huge economic and social problems persisted. The transition unravelled in the autumn of 2014 when the Houthis armed group capitalised on the weak government and security apparatus to stage a de facto takeover of the capital Sana’a and national institutions. The Houthis pushed south towards Aden in mid-March 2015, prompting President al-Hadi and the government to relocate to Saudi Arabia, where they requested international assistance. On 26 March 2015, an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes against the Houthi armed group in response to President al-Hadi’s request.
38.According to the UN, the conflict has been “brutal and has exacted a severe toll on civilians.” Health facilities have reported more than 35,000 casualties, including more than 6,100 deaths, since mid-March—an average of 113 casualties per day. In a report prepared for the UN Security Council by the Panel of Experts on Yemen in January 2016, 119 coalition air sorties relating to violations of IHL were identified. The panel found evidence of airstrikes targeting camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes. During an address in London on 5 February 2016, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, said:
“Yemen is in flames and coalition airstrikes in particular continue to strike schools, hospitals, mosques and civilian infrastructure.”
A UN press release issued on 22 March indicates that the impact of the conflict on civilians shows no sign of abating:
“The UN human rights chief last week condemned the repeated failure of the Coalition to effectively prevent civilian coalition airstrikes after two deadly strikes—just weeks apart—killed nearly 150 people, including children.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said incidents that have hit markets, hospitals, clinics, schools and other civilian structures occur “with unacceptable regularity”.”
39.The laws of war are intended to minimise harm to civilians and other non-combatants during armed conflict. Attacks that deliberately target civilians, which do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, or that cause disproportionate loss of civilian life or property, all violate IHL. This chapter focuses on the role of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia because the UK has a strong diplomatic and commercial relationship with that nation. We recognise, however, that both sides of the conflict are implicated in breaches of IHL.
40.Evidence to us suggests that the bombing in Yemen is indiscriminate, in breach of IHL. For example, Médecins Sans Frontières identified that “grave violations of IHL are almost commonplace, with indiscriminate bombings and ground fighting not sparing civilians. Yemen is in an all-out war, in which the population caught on the wrong side is considered a legitimate target.” From his experience on the ground, Julien Harneis, UNICEF Representative in Yemen, told us that:
“We see that, in certain areas, the way the bombing is being conducted, irrespective of whether it is a cluster munition or a conventional bomb, is almost guaranteed to lead to civilian deaths…These are huge bombs dropped into a city of millions of people.
Then there is a sort of double-tap. They will drop a bomb. Ambulance and health workers will rush to assist the victims, and then they will drop another bomb two hours later and blow up the ambulance crew.”
Having seen the results of 10 months of bombing in Sana’a, Mr Harneis questioned whether there were any military targets left as they had been “blown to smithereens…
I wonder what they are targeting…I wonder what is left to blow up.”
41.Save the Children is concerned with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Yemen, from which civilians account for 95% of all reported casualties. As Save the Children told us:
“The conflict in Yemen has been characterised by the use of heavy explosive weapons often in populated areas, with civilians across the country living through a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment and ground attacks.”
42.Amnesty International said that Saudi Arabia has designated entire cities as military targets. If verified, such targeting would certainly be ‘indiscriminate’ and would clearly make protections of civilians, and humanitarian access in such areas, difficult, if not impossible.
43.Evidence to us suggests that all parties to the conflict have consistently failed to protect civilians in contravention of IHL. Save the Children noted:
“Senior UN officials, the ICRC, and NGOs have accused parties to the conflict of deliberately targeting civilian objects, failing to distinguish between civilian objects and legitimate military targets, and of launching disproportionate attacks. During the first six months of the conflict the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified 8,875 reports of human rights violations.”
44.Civilians are paying too high a price in the conflict in Yemen. There is clear evidence of a disregard for civilian life and for the rules of war which are designed to minimise harm to civilians. We are deeply concerned about reported violations of IHL.
45.Witnesses to our inquiry emphasised that influencing the conduct of the conflict was the most important thing that the UK Government could do at this stage. Save the Children called for a more vocal approach to condemnation of IHL violations and the establishment of an independent investigation into reports of violations. UNICEF called for an end to indiscriminate bombing and shelling, while Oxfam and Saferworld told us that the UK Government should suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
46.Despite UN commissioned evidence suggesting 119 violations of IHL, more than 60 breaches documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and attacks on three MSF hospitals in three months, the UK Government does not accept that there have been breaches of IHL by the Saudi-led coalition. The Foreign Secretary said to the Conservative Middle East Council on 10 February 2016:
“We have been clear with the coalition partners from the outset about the importance of compliance with international humanitarian law and I have said in Parliament, and will say again here: we have looked at every allegation of breach of international humanitarian law, and we have found no evidence of breach of international humanitarian law, and we urge the coalition to go onto the front foot, to investigate where there are allegations and be open about what they find.”
When we asked the FCO Minister Tobias Ellwood about attacks on civilians and civilian objects, he stated the UK Government has:
“encouraged and indeed made sure that Saudi Arabians are aware of the process that they must follow to do their investigations, along with the Yemeni authorities … that is what we must confirm ourselves, before we then say that there has been a breach of this, that or the other.”
47.Roy Isbister from Saferworld questioned the UK Government’s response to evidence of violations of IHL by human rights organisations, relying instead on investigations by Saudi Arabia. He told us:
“These have been very carefully documented uses by very respected human rights organisations. In other contexts, the Government will cite their reports. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty will be cited in Syria; they have been cited in Libya and Sudan in support of the Government position. Here, they are referred to as not good enough to be considered evidence compared with a reassurance from the Saudis, one of the belligerents to the conflict, that there are no violations of international humanitarian law.”
The evidence we have heard of IHL breaches is compelling. Josephine Hutton said:
“We have seen examples. Oxfam has had its own warehouse affected. MSF has reported four incidents now, just in the last few months. It is pretty hard to brush over that and say that the targeting of a hospital was done accidentally. There are many examples of warehouses, schools, etc., that have been raised. You cannot get past that fact.”
48.The conduct of the conflict has been brutal. The UN has reminded all parties to the conflict that they have a duty of care in the conduct of military operations to protect all civilian persons and objects, including humanitarian and health care workers and facilities, against attack. We have heard credible evidence of violations of IHL in Yemen. Mark Lowcock, Permanent Secretary, DFID, has spoken of the UK’s strong track record as a “country that has [consistently] tried to uphold the principles of international humanitarian law.”
49.It is deeply disappointing that the UK Government does not accept that breaches of IHL have taken place in Yemen. The failure to hold parties to the conflict to account for their actions appears to have contributed to an “anything goes” attitude by both sides to this conflict.
50.As we stated in our letter to the Secretary of State for International Development in February 2016, pressure must be applied to stop the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This would demonstrate the Government’s commitment to ensuring international norms are adhered to and civilians and aid workers are protected.
51.Evidence to the inquiry overwhelmingly called for an independent, international investigation into reports of violations of IHL in Yemen. A proposal for such an investigation was tabled at the UN Human Rights Council in September 2015 but not adopted. As Oxfam explained in its evidence to the inquiry:
“In a follow-up to the recommendations in a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Government of the Netherlands tabled a draft resolution at the Human Rights Council which included the provision of an international fact-finding mission to Yemen to investigate the conduct of the war. However, in the face of opposition from the Saudi Arabian Government and its coalition allies, the Dutch draft was not adopted. Instead a Saudi sponsored text without any reference to an independent, international fact finding mission was adopted. The UK is reported to have actively blocked the Dutch draft resolution.”
52.Clarifying the process at the Human Rights Council meeting, Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood wrote to us saying that:
“there were two different drafts initially put forward and the UK’s priority was to secure cross-regional agreement on a text that would strengthen human rights in Yemen…The two sides tabling resolutions reached an agreement on a single text, which was then adopted by consensus…We believe that the resolution will help create the conditions for the legitimate Government of Yemen to improve its capacity to protect human rights.”
53.The new text does not include an independent investigation but invites Saudi Arabia to conduct investigations of any alleged abuses in the first instance. We were told that the UK position is that:
“The most effective way, whether it’s independent or not, we believe is through the Saudis to start that process themselves.”
The Foreign Secretary wrote to us, adding that:
“The Government is not opposing calls for an independent investigation but, first and foremost, we want to see the Saudis investigate allegations of breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) which are attributed to them; and for their investigations to be thorough and conclusive. The Saudi authorities announced more detail of how they will investigate such incidents on 31 January, including a new investigation team outside of Coalition Command to review all existing procedures, and suggest improvements. We believe we should give time for this new team to do its job before considering the issue of an independent investigation.”
54.Although agreement on the resolution took place within the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect have recently questioned the effectiveness of investigations conducted by Saudi Arabia, calling for an international independent mechanism:
“We now expect that commitments by the Yemeni authorities and by Saudi Arabia to conduct credible and independent investigations into all alleged violations and provide reparations to victims will be swiftly implemented. It is imperative that the international community also gives immediate consideration to the most effective means of supporting this goal, including the possibility of establishing an international independent and impartial mechanism to support accountability in Yemen”.
We heard from Josephine Hutton from Oxfam that “it is one of the great disappointments that the [Dutch] resolution did go up and the UK Government did not support it. That was a great opportunity to agree on an independent investigation, which did not happen.” The Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), of which we are a constituent committee, were told recently in evidence by David Mepham of Human Rights Watch that:
“It is deeply ironic that at the Human Rights Council meeting in September (that others have referred to) where they [the UK] were opposing an independent international investigation in respect of Yemen, they were championing the one they had advocated for in respect of Sri Lanka. If it’s good enough for Sri Lanka, I don’t see why it’s not good enough for Yemen.
And that would be a very practical way to get to the truth, if there’s dispute, if there’s controversy, about the nature and the veracity of these allegations, let’s get an international body to make the assessment.”
55.We believe that the verification of reports of violations of IHL and any process of holding those responsible to account is severely hampered by the lack of any independent investigation into these allegations. We remain unconvinced that Saudi Arabia is best placed to conduct investigations into reports of IHL abuses by the Saudi-led Coalition. As we stated when we wrote to the Secretary of State for International Development in February 2016, it is a longstanding principle of the rule of law that inquiries should be independent of those being investigated. We are concerned that any investigation led by Coalition actors is likely to come to the conclusion that the allegations were inaccurate.
56.The resolution which gives authority to the Government of Yemen to investigate alleged abuse was agreed at the Human Rights Council in September 2015, which was more than seven months ago, since when civilian casualties in Yemen have increased by over 2,000 and the High Commissioner on Human Rights’ representative was briefly expelled from Yemen by the very authorities he was there to assist. CAEC recently heard from Human Rights Watch that not a single investigation had been conducted by the Yemeni Commission, and that a Saudi Committee that was set up in January would not be investigating individual strikes. This worrying and worsening situation only reinforces the urgent need for an independent investigation.
57.For this reason, whilst we note the response of 9 March from the Foreign Secretary that the Government is not opposing calls for an independent investigation, despite our reservations, we urge the Government to press the Saudis to complete their review within a short time frame. The longer this takes, the longer the potential impact on the safe delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need. We also urge the Government to support calls for an independent international inquiry into alleged abuses of IHL on the part of both sides in the current conflict in Yemen, and to do all it can to ensure this is established as a matter of urgency.
58.The UN Secretary General recently described Yemen as a region “awash with weapons”, stating that “we need States that are party to the Arms Trade Treaty to set an example in fulfilling one of the Treaty’s main purposes: controlling arms flows to actors that may use them in ways that breach international humanitarian law.” The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), along with UK national arms export criteria and the EU Common Position on arms exports, which regulate the UK trade in arms, say that licences cannot be granted “if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.” We heard powerful evidence from representatives of humanitarian organisations who said that they had witnessed bombing and targeting of civilians and civilian objects on the ground in Yemen, which suggests that there is more than a clear risk of IHL violations by the Saudi-led coalition. Both Julien Harneis, UNICEF Representative in Yemen, and Grant Pritchard from Save the Children described the bombing they had seen on the ground as “indiscriminate”.
59.The ATT Monitor recently concluded that several States Parties appear in direct violation of legally binding Treaty obligations by continuing to supply arms to Saudi Arabia where there is a clear risk that they will be used in breach of international law in Yemen. They described it as “inconceivable that lethal military equipment can continue to be authorised for export”.
60.UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia have significantly increased since the start of the current conflict in Yemen. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills documents report nearly £3 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia for the nine months from April to December 2015, that is a little under 40% of total UK arms sales during that period.
61.The Government insists that the UK has the most robust arms export licensing rules in the world. The Prime Minister told the House of Commons in January:
“we have the strictest rules for arms exports of almost any country anywhere in the world…we are not a member of the Saudi-led coalition; we are not directly involved in the Saudi-led coalition’s operations; and British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes…our arms exports are carefully controlled and we are backing the legitimate Government of the Yemen.”
The Foreign Secretary wrote to us that the Government monitors the situation in Yemen very closely, taking account of relevant information, including UK, US and Saudi reporting and open source reporting by the media and NGOs. He told us that he “is satisfied that all extant UK licences for the export of arms to Saudi Arabia are compliant with the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.” These points were reiterated in recent correspondence with the Foreign Secretary, which is published as an Appendix to this report.
62.We heard that Saferworld and Amnesty International commissioned a legal opinion by eminent law experts Professor Philippe Sands QC and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh of Matrix Chambers and Professor Andrew Clapham. It concluded that the UK Government is breaking national, EU, and international law by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia in the context of its military intervention in Yemen where there are clear examples of indiscriminate bombing which are in breach of IHL.
63.While we recognise that the arms export industry plays an important role in the UK economy and we are clear that the UK is legitimately allowed to sell weapons to allies, the Government should not sell weapons to allies if doing so would breach the UK’s legal obligations under UK arms export criteria, the EU common position on arms exports and the Arms Trade Treaty. Indeed, we suggest that it is in the long-term interest of the arms industry to be able to demonstrate a robust approach that maintains compliance with IHL.
64.The growing evidence of indiscriminate bombing by the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen, in violation of IHL, raises serious questions over the Government’s continued licensing of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia must be answered. If there is a risk that it contravenes the UK’s obligations under the laws which regulate the international arms trade, the UK should not be providing arms to one of the parties to the conflict.
65.In light of the strength and credibility of the evidence we have heard, we welcome the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) inquiry into the use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen. We recommend that CAEC considers the case for suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia until such time as there is evidence that there is no “clear risk” that arms exported from the UK “might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL”.. An independent inquiry would provide credible evidence on whether UK-manufactured arms have been used in the commission of violations of IHL, and the UK Government should fully support an independent investigation without delay.
66.Evidence we received described a “paradox at the heart of the UK Government’s approach to Yemen”, whereby the Government’s licensing of arms exports to Saudi Arabia could be undermining the protection of civilians and be inconsistent with the UK’s support for the humanitarian response. Save the Children told us:
“It is one of the great paradoxes that we face…the UK Government has this incredibly responsible role in terms of the aid side, and yet their role in terms of provision and support, which has become clearer and clearer as the weeks have gone on, in perpetuating the conflict is an incoherence that does not bear out.”
67.The Foreign Secretary was asked about the issue of arms exports in a Newsnight interview in November 2015 in which he confirmed that UK arms are being used in Yemen:
“We’d always like to do more business, more British exports, more British jobs and in this case very high end engineering jobs protected and created by our diplomacy abroad. I know that some of them are being used in Yemen, that doesn’t fall foul of the export licensing criteria.”
68.DFID Minister Desmond Swayne told us that the conflict is creating challenges for the delivery of humanitarian aid, as “while people are being blown to smithereens, it makes life very difficult.” However, he explicitly rejected the suggestion that his Department’s work was being undermined by the Government’s licensing of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. He suggested that maintaining a principle of supporting the Saudi-led coalition helped to provide influence in the negotiations over humanitarian access:
“The United Kingdom is not a party to this conflict. We are not at war. We support the restoration of the lawful government of the Yemen. Now, I have found that my support for the principle has given me a level of access with which I am able to agitate for greater humanitarian access and relief and greater provision to make shipping available…and indeed the observation of humanitarian law.”
69.The UK Government should listen to the many concerns being expressed, including to this Committee, that the humanitarian crisis that DFID is working to address in Yemen may be being exacerbated by a flow of British arms into Saudi Arabia. Maintaining a relationship of potential influence in the region should not prevent the UK Government from closely examining the contents and evidence of this report. We urge it to use all levers of influence at its disposal to ensure IHL is not violated, and to work to achieve the greatest possible level of cross-governmental policy coherence in respect of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
70.The Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), which is comprised of the Business, Innovation and Skills, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees, was re-established in January 2016 and has announced an inquiry into the use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen. In its evidence to our inquiry, Saferworld credited the UK Parliament, through the existence of CAEC, as being “a world leader and a significant influence on attitudes of transparency and accountability in other States”. CAEC has previously raised concerns about arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia that are listed as a Priority Market for arms exports whilst simultaneously listed by the FCO as a country of major human rights concerns.
71.Of the arms licensing criteria, we consider that there are three in particular against which UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia should be thoroughly tested:
72.DFID has a formal role in considering licences under criterion 8 (“whether the proposed export would seriously hamper the sustainable development of the recipient country”). It does not at present have a role in considering the impact on the development of countries where those proposed arms exports might ultimately be used, even if those countries are recipients of UK aid. Nor is it involved in the application of the three criteria listed above.
73.In light of the reports of violations of IHL by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, we welcome CAEC’s decision to examine in detail whether UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia breach the laws which regulate the international arms trade. Through our membership of CAEC we will pursue examination of relevant export licences with specific reference to criteria 2, 3, 4 and 8. The CAEC inquiry will consider DFID’s role in arms export licensing further and consider expansion of the application of criterion 8 to consider the sustainable development of not only the recipient country, but also those countries where the proposed exports may be used.
90 , The Guardian, 27 January 2016
91 , UN Statement, 5 February 2016
92 , UN News Centre, 22 March 2016.
93 Human Rights Watch, What Military Target Was in My Brother’s House- unlawful coalition airstrikes in Yemen (November 2015)
94 Médecins Sans Frontières Executive Summary
97 Save the Children, Nowhere Safe for Yemen’s Children- the deadly impact of explosive weapons in Yemen (November 2015), p 5
98 Save the Children para 2.9
99 , Amnesty International, 7 October 2015 and , Reuters, 12 February 2016
100 See Médecins Sans Frontières Executive Summary, Save the Children para 2.12, Dr Sarah Phillips para 5
101 Save the Children para 2.8
103 Conservative Middle East Council, CMEC Annual Policy Lecture 2016: The Middle East and UK Foreign Policy (February 2016), p 4
107 , UN News Centre, 16 February 2016
108 Oral evidence taken before the Public Accounts Committee on 10 February 2016, HC (2015–16) 728, Q95 (Mr Lowcock)
109 See Save the Children para 3.7, Dr Judith Brown para 2a, Saferworld para 6, Oxfam para 14
110 Oxfam para 26
111 Foreign and Commonwealth Office
113 Appendix 3
114 , UN Press Release, 16 February 2016
116 Oral evidence taken before the Committees on Arms Export Controls on 23 March 2016, , Q53 [David Mepham]
117 The High Commissioner for Human Rights documented some 6,631 civilian casualties on 1 September 2015 (see , UN News Centre, 1 September 2015), this figure had risen to to 8,814 by 4 March 2016 (see , UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights, 4 March 2016)
118 , UN News Centre, 8 January 2016
119 Oral evidence taken before the Committees on Arms Export Controls on 23 March 2016, , Q3 [David Mepham]
120 Appendix 3
121 , United Nations Association- UK, 5 February 2016
122 HC Deb, 25 March 2014, [Commons written ministerial statement on the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria] see criterion two (c)
123 Q8 and Q9
124 ATT Monitor, (26 February 2016), p 7
125 for 1st April 2015–30th June 2015, for 1st July–30th September 2015 and for 1st October to 31st December 2015
126 HC Deb, 27 January 2016, [Commons Chamber]
127 Appendix 3
128 Appendix 4
129 Saferworld para 7 and Qq3-4
130 HC Deb, 25 March 2014, [Commons written ministerial statement on the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria] see criterion two (c)
131 Oxfam para 34
133 , The Independent, 11 November 2015
137 Committees on Arms Export Controls, , 10 March 2016
138 Saferworld para 9
139 Committees on Arms Export Controls, Second Joint Report of the Business, Innovation and Skills, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees of Session 2014–15 Committees on Arms Export Controls Scrutiny of Arms Exports and Arms Controls (2015): Scrutiny of the Government’s Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2013, the Government’s Quarterly Reports from October 2013 to June 2014 and the Government’s policies on arms exports and international arms control issues, HC 608, para 88
29 April 2016