8.Years of poverty, poor governance and insecurity had left Yemen the poorest country in the Middle East prior to the current crisis. However, the last 16 months of conflict and import restrictions have exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population and development in Yemen. On 1 July 2015, the UN declared Yemen a level 3 crisis, a category reserved for the most severe and large-scale humanitarian crises. It is estimated that some one fifth of people in need around the world as a result of conflict are in Yemen. The International Development Committee described the situation in Yemen as “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with 82% of the population in need of assistance.”
9.Since 26 March 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented a total of 3,704 civilians killed and 6,566 injured. This is equal to thirteen civilian casualties a day. Amongst those casualties, UNICEF has verified that 1,121 children have been killed and another 1,650 injured. The UN has confirmed that grave violations against children have increased dramatically as a result of the escalating conflict. Nearly half of all school-aged children are out of school. 2.8 million people are internally displaced. Attacks on health facilities and staff, coupled with a lack of fuel and medicines, have left the health system on the brink of collapse. Over half the population are living in ‘emergency’ or ‘crisis’ levels of food insecurity, with some governorates seeing as much as 70 per cent of their population struggling to feed themselves, which the UN has said shows the “the huge magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.” The crisis has also left the economy “on the verge of total collapse.” A joint report by the World Bank, United Nations, Islamic Development Bank and European Union, published in August 2016, has found that the cost of damage to infrastructure and economic losses has reached $14 billion. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, said that “the scale and intensity of the humanitarian situation here is bleak–and by many measures it’s continuing to get worse.” The level of need is simply staggering.
10.A cessation of hostilities was declared on 10 April 2016, accompanying peace talks in Kuwait, which provided some relief for civilians and improved humanitarian access across the country, although civilian casualties continued to mount during that period: the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented 815 civilian casualties, including 272 deaths and 543 injured, between 11 April and 11 August 2016. Peace talks broke down in early August 2016, at which point hostilities resumed in earnest. Attacks with deadly consequences for civilians have been recorded by both sides to the conflict. The impact of the conflict on basic services, infrastructure and the economy is still being felt and the humanitarian crisis shows little sign of abating; in fact, it continues to get worse. DFID has committed £85 million to the humanitarian response.
11.The escalation in hostilities and in humanitarian need in Yemen can be traced back to the Houthis’ armed seizure of the capital Sana’a in September 2014. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen stated that “The Houthis, acting in consort with their affiliated political organization, Ansar Allah, have gradually assumed control of State institutions and brought about the current crisis.” The intervention began in response to the request of Yemeni President Hadi to halt the advance of the Houthi armed group which had forced the legitimate government into exile in Saudi Arabia, and was supported by the UN Security Council. As explained by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in its evidence to us:
The legal basis for the intervention in Yemen by the Saudi Arabian-led Coalition is host nation consent. President Hadi wrote to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 24 March 2015 requesting a Chapter VII Resolution “inviting all countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression”. In that letter, he also informed the Security Council that he had requested assistance from the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council to provide “all means necessary, including military intervention, to protect Yemen and its people from continuing Houthi aggression”. In its Resolution 2216, the UNSC noted President Hadi’s requests for assistance and also reaffirmed its support for “the legitimacy of the President of Yemen, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi”. President Hadi has therefore requested and consented to Saudi assistance in Yemen in broad terms. As such, that consent provides a legal basis for the Saudi military intervention.
12.We heard that the situation in Yemen would have been much worse than the current humanitarian emergency without the Saudi-led military intervention. As Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood MP, told us:
However, had the Saudi-led coalition not been formed, the scale of violations of humanitarian law that would have taken place in Yemen would have been 10 times worse. The Houthis would have managed to get all the way down to the port of Aden and we would have had a completely failed state, far worse than the humanitarian catastrophe that is currently taking place, and despite the civil war that is actually there.
Sir Simon Mayall, a former Middle East adviser to the MoD, further outlined the consequences of non-intervention:
If the Saudis had not intervened in Yemen, a combination of Iranian-backed Houthis, AQAP [al-Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula] and ISIS would have led to another awful bleeding sore, as we have seen in Syria. As William Hague said yesterday, yes, there is a price for intervention, but there is a price to be paid for non-intervention. The fact that we are going to thwart, I hope, Iranian ambition in Yemen and we have pushed AQAP out of Mukalla is only as a result of Saudi Arabian intervention [ … ] It is a matter of national importance to the Saudi Arabians to intervene in Yemen. We should be grateful, otherwise we would end up with another Iranian satrapy on the Bab el Mandeb.
13.The International Committee of the Red Cross has noted that the obligation to have respect for and ensure compliance with IHL is “binding upon States involved in multinational operations, as well as on the International Organisations under whose auspices multinational operations are undertaken”.
14.We agree that there is a legal basis for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the legitimate need to quell the armed uprising of the Houthi rebels. We also agree that the UK has an interest in preventing the further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Yemen that would accompany Houthi expansion in the country. There is also a security interest in denying extremist militant groups such as AQAP further space to operate in Yemen. However, the fact that the UN Security Council has conferred legitimacy on the military intervention does not automatically endorse the conduct of the coalition, as we explore below.
15.The UN has described a “particularly worrisome escalation of conflict” which has been seen in Yemen. The intensity of the bombing campaign has attracted particular attention. As the UK Working Group on Arms wrote in its evidence to us:
Of notable concern is the pattern of harm resulting from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, including aircraft bombs, rockets and mortars. This practice puts the civilian population at considerable risk of death and injury and has a serious negative impact on communities. A report produced by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and UN OCHA analysing violence in Yemen between 1 January and 31 July 2015 showed that explosive weapons killed and injured 4,493 civilians in that time period. When aerial bombing took place in populated areas civilians made up 93 per cent of resulting deaths and injuries.
16.The AOAV report also recorded in 2015 more civilian deaths and injuries reported from explosive weapons in Yemen than in any other country in the world. Aerial bombing by the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 60 per cent of civilian deaths and injuries from explosive weapons in Yemen. In its written evidence to us, Article 36 adds that “in recent airstrikes on crowded market places in Sana’a and Hajja governorates in February and March, at least 145 civilians were killed, including 33 children. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the attacks and noted that the distinction between legitimate military targets and civilian ones by coalition forces is at best woefully inadequate and that these incidents may constitute international crimes.”
17.International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is based on the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. The principle of distinction obliges parties to a conflict to target only military objectives and not the civilian population or individual civilians or civilian objects (e.g. homes, schools and hospitals). The principle of proportionality limits and protects potential harm to civilians by demanding that the least amount of harm be caused to civilians and, when harm to civilians must occur, it must be proportional to the military objective. Moreover, each party to the conflict must take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects under its control against the effects of attacks. Therefore, evidence of civilian casualties cannot be equated with evidence of violations of IHL. There is compelling evidence of systematic violations of IHL committed by both sides to the conflict. However, as the UK does not supply arms to the Houthis or other armed opposition groups, this Report will focus on the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen.
18.On 2 June 2016, the United Nations published its annual report on Children and Armed Conflict, in which it highlighted the worrying situation in Yemen as well as the Saudi-led coalition’s role:
The United Nations verified a sixfold increase in the number of children killed and maimed compared with 2014, totalling 1,953 child casualties (785 children killed and 1,168 injured). More than 70 per cent were boys. Of the casualties, 60 per cent (510 deaths and 667 injuries) were attributed to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and 20 per cent (142 deaths and 247 injuries) to the Houthis [ … ] The United Nations verified 101 incidents of attacks on schools and hospitals, which is double the number verified in 2014. Of the attacks, 90 per cent caused the partial or complete destruction of schools or health facilities, while the remaining 10 per cent involved attacks on protected personnel, including students. Of the attacks on schools and hospitals, 48 per cent were attributed to the coalition, 29 per cent to the Houthis and 20 per cent to unidentified perpetrators.
The same report also found a “fivefold increase in cases of recruitment and use of children by armed groups [ … ] Of the 762 verified cases of recruitment of children (all boys), the majority were attributed to the Houthis (72 per cent).
19.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 potential violations of IHL were identified:
The Panel documented that the coalition had conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including 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.
20.The Panel further noted the coalition’s designation of the entire city of Sa’dah and region of Maran as military targets, confirming that “entire cities or governorates cannot be considered military targets, even with attempts to provide advance warning.” The UK Government’s response to the UN Panel of Experts report has been to underline that the experts did not enter Yemen but relied on satellite imagery, a criticism Tobias Ellwood MP repeated in his evidence to our inquiry. However, much evidence of IHL violations have been documented by organisations on the ground in Yemen. David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch, told us about the evidence they had documented:
We have been to the 36 sites; we have looked at the evidence and talked to eyewitnesses; we have talked to bystanders and looked at photographic evidence, where it has been available; and we have looked at the satellite imagery. Lawyers have pored all over it, and we are very confident that in the 36 cases we have documented—there may be a considerable number of further cases—violations of IHL have taken place.
21.Amnesty International told us about the similar process they had gone through in documenting a further 30 examples of IHL abuses, in which “the laws of war have been violated, in particular the key principles of proportionality and distinction and the steps taken to minimise civilian casualties.” We heard about one example between May and July 2015 in the Sa’dah region, where a series of strikes resulted in the deaths of 100 civilians, 55 children and 22 women. Therefore, the majority of deaths in those particular strikes were women and children.
22.Together, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented a case in September 2015 in which the remnants of a British-supplied cruise missile had been identified from a strike on a ceramics factory. Evidence of all of the above airstrikes have been shared with the British and Saudi authorities, as David Mepham told us:
I was at a meeting with [the Foreign Secretary] several months ago when I gave him copies of our report and said, “These are the GPS coordinates; these are the strikes; these are the markets and schools that were hit.” Therefore, he has that evidence. The Foreign Office has had that evidence for months. It is extraordinary that the line comes back that they do not have evidence, when that evidence has been shared with them for a considerable period of time.
23.It has been noted by a number of sources that the UK Government frequently cites Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International evidence in other conflicts, such as Syria, but in Yemen the Government appears to be relying on assurances from the Saudi authorities. In her written evidence to us, Dr Anna Stavrianakis of the University of Sussex states:
The UK government is thus currently both refusing to respond to published, documented evidence provided by independent experts; and relying on secret claims provided by the Saudi military. This creates an information black hole that makes it impossible for CAEC or other independent observers to properly assess UK government policy and hold it to account.
24.As we heard from Professor Philippe Sands QC, in his opinion the Government should be cautious about relying on assurances from the Saudis:
The essence of our position is this. In the face of the overwhelming evidence of what is happening on the ground as a consequence of coalition attacks, as well as attacks from the other side—from the Houthi forces—it appears clear that the coalition forces are engaged in violations of international humanitarian law. In those circumstances, an assurance such as that at paragraph 6.28, given by the Saudis, does not appear to be worth the paper it is printed on. If I were a Minister, I would be extremely anxious and worried about relying on such an assurance in the face of a report by a Security Council group of experts that makes it clear that the assurance is not accurate.
Ministers’ assurances were subsequently undermined by the corrections made by the FCO on 21 July 2016 to statements and written answers given by Ministers over the previous seven months to clarify that the Government does not in fact assess whether breaches of IHL have taken place (as discussed in paragraph 40).
25.We have heard evidence of serious breaches of IHL by both sides of the conflict. The warring parties have potentially not adequately distinguished between civilian and military targets, which has caused enormous suffering; civilians account for half of those killed, and nearly three million people have fled their homes. The UK Government has not responded to allegations of IHL breaches by the Saudi-led coalition in any meaningful way and we are concerned that our support for the coalition, principally through arms sales, is having the effect of conferring legitimacy on its actions. We recommend that the Government press all parties to the conflict to comply with IHL to minimise harm to civilians and protect civilian infrastructure and continue to monitor the situation closely, with an on-going review of evidence provided by a range of sources.
26.Human Rights Watch reported on 14 February 2015 that the Saudi-led coalition were using cluster munitions supplied by the United States in Yemen. It was noted in the UN Panel of Experts report that the military spokesman of Saudi Arabia, Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, had indicated that Saudi Arabia had used cluster munitions on or against armoured vehicles in Yemen. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also verified reports of cluster munitions dropped by coalition forces and resulting in civilian casualties. We were told that the UK has not supplied cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia “for many decades”. The UK has not supplied, maintained or supported these weapons since signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008. Even though neither the US, Saudi Arabia, nor Yemen are signatories to the convention, the coalition’s alleged use of these weapons might contravene IHL and is significant for the UK Government which, as a signatory, is obliged to do all they can to prevent the use of cluster munitions in armed conflict. As Oliver Sprague from Amnesty International explained:
It is important in two ways. First, as a general view on the conduct of the hostilities, the UK is clearly saying that cluster munitions are a prohibited weapon and they can never have a legitimate use in conflict because of their disproportionate effect on civilians. Therefore, if an armed force is deploying those weapons, it should ring very clear alarm bells about the conduct of that armed force in relation to that conflict.
The second point is the legal position of the UK on the provision of cluster munitions. If you look at the cluster munitions treaty, it is very clear in its obligations. It is not just about whether the UK is being used to deploy them or selling them; it is about whether the UK is facilitating their use. That is not just whether it is on aircraft; it is UK personnel. My earlier point was that that is a question for the Government. The Government need to be very clear about what steps they have taken in this conflict to ensure that they are fulfilling their obligations under the cluster munitions treaty. Secondly, by using these weapons, Saudi Arabia and its allies are demonstrating a casual disregard for the rules of war, which should be a very important and significant factor in the UK’s decision whether or not to supply weaponry to them, given the examples of how they are being used.
27.From a legal perspective, Professor Philippe Sands QC agreed that the reports on the coalition’s use of cluster munitions needed to be considered further by the UK Government:
It is certainly a factor that could be taken into account. I do not think that it is likely to be a dispositive factor as such. However, if a country uses weaponry of a particular kind, in particular circumstances, when it ought not to be doing so, one would form the impression that it is more likely to be doing other things that it ought not to be doing. That would push HMG to look with greater care at whether it is appropriate in all the circumstances to be contributing, where that is happening.
It is an interesting question. I would put it this way. You cannot say that it is irrelevant and you cannot say that it is dispositive, but it is certainly a factor I would want to know more about.
28.On 23 May 2016, Amnesty International reported that they had identified and documented a UK-supplied BL-755 cluster munition used by the coalition on farmland in a village in northern Yemen. In response to the Amnesty International report, the then Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons that the Government had had assurances from Saudi Arabia that cluster munitions had not been used in the conflict in Yemen, but that the MoD would be urgently investigating the allegations. However, the MoD confirmed they were not conducting any investigation, beyond calling for assurances from the Saudis. As the then Minister for Defence Procurement, Philip Dunne MP, responded to an Urgent Question in the House:
Based on all the information available to us, including sensitive coalition operational reporting, we assess that no UK-supplied cluster weapons have been used, and that no UK-supplied aircraft have been involved in the use of UK cluster weapons, in the current conflict in Yemen [ … ] The Saudis have previously denied using UK cluster munitions during the conflict in Yemen, but we are seeking fresh assurances in the light of this serious new allegation.
29.Tobias Ellwood raised cluster munitions (CM) in a letter to us on 18 May 2016, in which he confirmed that “the UK did provide CM to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, but we understand that none of these CM have been used in Yemen and no UK-supplied aircraft have been used to deploy CM in Yemen.” The evidence published by Amnesty International, five days after this letter was sent, raises serious questions about the Government’s understanding both in terms of the use of cluster munitions by the coalition in Yemen and the use of UK-supplied aircraft in deploying them.
30.Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented evidence of the Saudi-led coalition’s use of cluster munitions in populated, civilian areas in Yemen. Cluster munitions are banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, to which the UK is a signatory, although Saudi Arabia is not. That notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia’s reported use of cluster munitions in populated areas in Yemen would contravene IHL and calls into question the coalition’s wider respect for the rules of war. Evidence of a UK-supplied cluster munition dropped by the coalition in Yemen means this is a matter which the UK Government must address.
31.We do not believe that the UK Government can meet its obligations under the Convention on Cluster Munitions by relying on assurances from the Saudis. We recommend that the MoD carry out its own investigation into the purported use by the coalition forces of a UK-supplied cluster bomb, further to evidence found in Yemen. We also recommend that the Government, as a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, set out the steps it has taken not only to make sure UK-supplied aircraft and UK personnel are not in any way implicated in the use or deployment of these weapons, which is prohibited under the Convention, but also the steps it has taken to stop Saudi Arabia from using cluster munitions.
32.It was noted by the International Development Committee that a proposal for an international independent mechanism for investigating violations of IHL in Yemen was tabled by the Netherlands at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in September 2015, but was not adopted in favour of a Saudi text which did not include any reference to an independent inquiry. The UK supported the Saudi proposals that they investigate violations of IHL attributed to them in the first instance. As Tobias Ellwood told us:
What Britain did, along with other nations, was to make sure that the text provided was eventually agreed unanimously, and that meant the onus was on the Saudis initially to do the investigation. I make it very clear that this is nothing new. When other countries, including ourselves, are in operations overseas and mistakes—collateral damage—take place, the country that is responsible conducts its own independent inquiry and presents the results.
Members of the Saudi-led coalition including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Yemen, formed the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) to investigate allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen. Witnesses to the inquiry have questioned the efficacy and transparency of the JIAT, and have raised concerns about the time it has taken for the JIAT to publish its work.
33.The Saudi authorities announced on 31 January 2016 the results of an investigation into the October 2015 airstrike on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facility in Sa’ada. Tobias Ellwood wrote to us about the steps taken by the Saudis following this investigation, as follows:
On 4 August 2016 the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), comprising 14 members from coalition states, reported its conclusions to eight further incidents they had investigated. The JIAT found that the coalition had abided by military rules of engagement in six out of the eight incidents and in only one of the instances in which errors were made were there civilian casualties and therefore reparations required. The JIAT reported that “Coalition forces are committed to observing the rules laid down in international conventions on humanitarian law and in particular not directly targeting civilians during military operations and take all measures to preserve their safety and lives.” The JIAT’s legal adviser said that the work of the JIAT in assessing the incidents “depends on ensuring the legal aspects of target operations that are compatible with the international law, and on using the American and British mechanism to assess accidents in addition to the law of armed conflict. On the same date, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) completed his report on the human rights situation in Yemen. Despite the cooperation between the OHCHR and the Yemeni national commission and Saudi investigations, there are a number of inconsistencies between the High Commissioner’s findings and those of the JIAT. For example, both the OHCHR and the JIAT reported on an airstrike which hit a wedding party in Dhamar Governorate on 7 October 2015. Witnesses told the UN that military aircraft dropped two missiles resulting in the complete destruction of a two-story house, at the precise time in which invitees had lined up to welcome the three grooms and their brother to the ceremony. This resulted in the killing of 47 civilians, including 21 women and 15 children, and 58 wounded, including 18 women and 16 children. The JIAT found no evidence of any airstrikes on 7 October; instead they reported that there had been an air raid on the road connecting Dhamar-Rida’a to Al Bayda’a which had targeted a camp of armed vehicles and no civilian centres. Mr Ellwood admitted:
I share the Committee’s frustration that that information has been slow to come forward. This is a nation that is not used to sharing information in this manner and to having to expose internationally the details of what it does. This is the first time it has had to do sustained warfare. It must look up and answer to the international standards that we expect. We will make it very clear if we feel that it does not meet those standards, but we require time, and Saudi Arabia will require time, to provide the analysis that needs to be done in all these cases.
34.The Yemeni National Commission of Inquiry was due to report on their investigations to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015; instead, they agreed to provide an update later in the year. Mr Ellwood told the House on 4 July 2016 that they would now report back to the next session of the Human Rights Council in September—12 months since the commission of inquiry was set up and six months after the original deadline. Mr Ellwood also told us about an Independent Committee with foreign advisors to investigate Saudi Arabian military activity in Yemen which was announced on 29 February 2016 and which the Minister expected would shortly begin work when he wrote to us on 18 May 2016. As a report on the Yemen crisis for VICE News in the US explained:
Mike Newton, a former US soldier and military lawyer and one of the leading American authorities on international humanitarian law, quibbles with the way groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch interpret humanitarian law. For human rights organizations, establishing what appears to be a widespread pattern of indiscriminate attacks that cause large numbers of civilian casualties is enough to prove the law has been broken. But under the complex legal framework involved in such cases, Newton says, rights organizations would have to have highly precise details from the ground and from inside the coalition operations center, which they almost certainly do not.
This process was clarified to us by Mr Ellwood, who said:
With any information that is provided to us via NGOs on the ground or, indeed, a UN expert panel, we must make sure that the Saudi independent investigations committee has the opportunity to investigate and make a report. Yes, it has been slow—far too slow—and they must improve. They have not had experience of this. They will report back and we will then make a judgment.
35.However, by repeatedly insisting that all UK extant arms licences to Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK’s legal obligations, the UK Government is making a judgement: that there is no risk that arms sold to Saudi Arabia will be used to violate IHL in Yemen. The then Minister for Defence Procurement, Philip Dunne, told us how the UK Government was able to make that judgement:
When an incident is brought to our attention, whether by the Saudis or by NGOs, we seek access to the operational reports which, as I have explained, the Saudis are willing to provide to us. We look at our own sources of information to see whether there is any information to which we have access from our own sources that might provide more or corroborating information in relation to the incident. Then we analyse that to see whether or not the incident appears to have involved a strike from the air and whether or not that strike might have been caused by weapons that we have supplied. We form an analysis in that regard, in relation to potential incidents, and encourage the Saudi armed forces to do their own investigation, to see whether they think that incident is or is not compliant with IHL.
36.In its evidence to this inquiry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office explained the basis for their judgement that arms export licences to Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK’s export licensing criteria:
In particular we note that: (1) the Saudi-led Coalition is not targeting civilians; (2) Saudi Arabian processes and procedures have been put in place to ensure respect for the principles of IHL; (3) Saudi Arabia is investigating incidents of concern, including those involving civilian casualties; (4) Saudi Arabia has throughout engaged in constructive dialogue with the UK about both its processes and incidents of concern; (5) Saudi Arabia has been and remains genuinely committed to IHL compliance. The Government is currently satisfied that extant licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK’s export licensing criteria.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the then Foreign Secretary to contest each of the above five points. When asked about the first point, Professor Philippe Sands QC told us that it depended on the meaning of “They are not targeting civilians”. He argued that while it was unlikely that the Saudi authorities were identifying groups of civilians and targeting them, they were bombing entire towns or entire areas and that that is on its face a violation of international humanitarian law.
37.David Mepham of Human Rights Watch described the claim that Saudi Arabia has been and remains genuinely committed to IHL compliance as “remarkable” given the scale of civilian casualties from airstrikes in Yemen. He told us that, even under increased international scrutiny, Saudi conduct in Yemen had not changed:
The pattern of indiscriminate attacks we have described has continued. There was discussion the other day with the Saudis suggesting they may be trying to scale back their military offensive, but the bombs continue to fall. A press release put out by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights talked about a strike that took place last week that killed 106 civilians in a crowded village market in north-western Yemen [ … ] So I do not think there has been a change in the pattern of their conduct in this conflict.
A continuation of Saudi conduct was evident following the collapse of peace talks in early August 2016, when there was a swift escalation of hostilities and the resumption of reports of civilian deaths. In particular, on 15 August 2015, at least 19 people were reported killed and 24 injured in an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on a hospital in Hajjah governorate supported by Médecins Sans Frontières. This followed airstrikes the previous week on a school in northern Yemen that killed 10 children and wounded 28 others, and on a potato-crisp factory which killed 14, mostly women.
38.In response to the Hajjah airstrike, the fourth on an MSF facility in Yemen, MSF announced that it was evacuating its staff from the six hospitals it supports in Northern Yemen. MSF explained:
Given the intensity of the current offensive and our loss of confidence in the Coalition’s ability to avoid such fatal attacks, MSF considers that the hospitals in Saada and Hajjah governorates are unsafe for both patients and staff. The decision to evacuate the staff, which include obstetricians, pediatricians, surgeons and emergency room specialists, from a project is never taken lightly, but in the absence of credible assurances that parties to a conflict will respect the protected status of medical facilities, medical workers, and patients, there may be no other options. This is the case in Hajjah and in Saada governorate based on recent events.
They repeated the need for an independent investigation, adding that previous coalition investigations related to MSF facilities have not been shared with MSF.
39.It is challenging for us effectively to scrutinise claims that extant licences for Saudi Arabia remain compliant with the UK’s export licensing criteria as the Government has provided very little evidence in response to reports of IHL violations and is relying on information and reports from the Saudis to which independent observers are not privy. As we heard from Dr Anna Stavrianakis, “The Government’s response thus far has been to say, “We have a policy. It’s okay,” or, “We’ve been reassured by the Saudis. It’s okay,” but there is a whole series of credible allegations the Government have simply not responded to.” She questioned why the Government had not responded to these criticisms and why it had not provided any evidence to refute them. Statements and assurances from the Government that there is no evidence of breaches of IHL by the Saudi-led coalition, and that UK arms licences to Saudi Arabia remain compliant with the UK’s obligations, were brought into question when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office released a written statement on 21 July 2016 to correct statements and written answers made by three Ministers in the Department, including the Foreign Secretary, between January and June 2016. The corrections suggest that the assessments the Government told us it conducts into evidence of breaches of IHL, set out in detail by Philip Dunne in paragraph 35, have not in fact taken place. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary have been changed from “we have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL by the coalition” and “our judgement is that there is no evidence that IHL has been breached”, to “we have not assessed” and “we have been unable to assess” that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition.
40.A statement made by the then Foreign Office Minister, the Rt Hon David Lidington MP, was corrected to remove any reference to an MOD assessment of whether the coalition is acting in breach of IHL. A statement by Tobias Ellwood MP was amended along similar lines changing “we are doing our own assessments to understand whether the equipment we sell has any participation in that and indeed whether the breaches are by the Houthis or the Saudi Arabians”, to “We encourage the Saudis to conduct their own investigations to understand whether the equipment we sell has any participation in that and indeed whether the breaches are by the Houthis or the Saudi Arabians.” These are significant changes to the evidence the Government has given to us and the House regarding their assessment of IHL compliance in Yemen. In his response to an Urgent Question in the House on this issue on 5 September, the Minister, Tobias Ellwood, did not provide further clarity to that given in his original Written Statement and accompanying letter to the Committee Chair. These corrections not only damage confidence in cross-Whitehall co-ordination and competence but, more importantly, undermine the Government’s view that there is no clear risk that UK arms licensed to Saudi Arabia will be used in violations of IHL in Yemen.
41.We were told that an international independent investigation into reports of violations of IHL is the most appropriate means for verifying incident information in a transparent and credible way. David Mepham of Human Rights Watch stressed to us the importance of an international and independent investigation in order to establish the facts. He pointed out that the UK Government had championed such an investigation in Sri Lanka at the same Human Rights Council meeting at which the Dutch proposal for an inquiry in Yemen was blocked.
42.The reports of potential violations of IHL in Yemen since September 2014 have been widespread, with both parties to the conflict being accused of failing to take the necessary and proportionate precautions to protect civilians. We are not convinced that Saudi Arabia is best placed to investigate reports of IHL breaches and their lack of progress in reporting findings only confirms our concerns that they are obstructing the process. 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. Following the FCO corrections to written answers and statements made by Ministers on the conflict in Yemen, it is unclear what analysis the Government has undertaken to assess the risk that UK arms transfers to Saudi Arabia might be used in breach of IHL. Without credible investigations, neither the Saudi-led coalition nor the Houthis are being held accountable for their actions and it is Yemeni civilians who bear the consequences.
43.We welcome the progress that has been made to date by the Saudi-led coalition establishing the mechanisms to investigate allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law. However, further progress is needed to ensure that JIAT is transparent, credible, and publishes its investigations in a timely manner. We recommend that the UK Government offer its support to the JIAT where appropriate so that it can meet these ends. We also believe that an independent, United Nations-led investigation of alleged violations by all parties to the conflict is necessary to supplement the internal investigations of the Saudi-led coalition. We recommend that the UK Government support calls for the establishment of such an investigation as a matter of urgency.
4 HC Deb, 24 May 2016, [Mr Dunne]
5 International Development Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2015–16, HC532, Summary
6 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, , 10 June 2016
7 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, , 25 August 2016
8 , UN News Centre, 9 August 2016
9 UN General Assembly Security Council, (20 April 2016), para 164
11 “ ” UN News Centre, 16 June 2016
12 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (November 2015), p 20
13 “ , UN News Centre, 21 June 2016
14 “ ” UN News Centre, 16 June 2016
15 “”, Reuters, 17 August 2016
16 “ ” UN News Centre, 16 June 2016
17 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, , 12 August 2016
18 “ ” UN News Centre, 16 June 2016
20 Foreign and Commonwealth Office () para 28
23 International Committee of the Red Cross, (October 2015), p 25
24 United National General Assembly Security Council, (20 April 2016), para 6
25 The UK Working Group on Arms () para 17
26 Action on Armed Violence and UN OCHA, (September 2015), p 3
27 Action on Armed Violence and UN OCHA, (September 2015), p 7
28 Article 36 () para 9
29 UN Security Council, (26 January 2016), para 123
30 UN Security Council, (20 April 2016), paras 167-169
31 As above, para 165.
32 UN Security Council, (26 January 2016), para 137
33 UN Security Council, (26 January 2016), para 129
34 HC Deb, 28 Jan 2016, [Mr Ellwood]; HC Deb, 22 Mar 2016, [Mr Ellwood]
39 “”, Vice News, 11 March 2016; oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 27 January 2016, HC (2015–16) 532, Q9 (Mr Isbister); UK Working Group on Arms () para 7
40 Dr Anna Stavrianakis () para 8
41 Professor Philippe Sands QC, Professor Andrew Clapham and Blinne Ni Ghralaigh, , 11 December 2015, para 6.28
43 “ ” UN News Centre, 16 June 2016
44 UN Security Council, (26 January 2016), para 130
45 Report of the UN High Commission for Human Rights “Situation of human rights in Yemen” (4 August 2016), paras 33-36
46 Q187 [Mr Dunne]
49 “”, Amnesty International UK, 23 May 2016
50 HC Deb, 24 May 2016, [Mr Hammond]
51 HC Deb, 8 June 2016,
52 HC Deb, 24 May 2016,
53 FCO supplementary evidence ()
54 International Development Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2015–16, , HC 532, para 51
56 Q3, and UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid condemns repeated killing of civilians in Yemen airstrikes, 18 March 2016
57 FCO supplementary evidence ()
58 , 5 August 2016
59 Report of the UN High Commission for Human Rights “Situation of human rights in Yemen” (4 August 2016), Annex 1C
61 [on Yemen: armed conflict], 4 July 2016
62 Letter from Tobias Ellwood, dated 18 May 2016
63 VICE News, , 11 March 2016
66 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (), para 45
67 Human Rights Watch, , 4 May 2016
69 Human Rights Watch, , 4 May 2016
76 ; Appendix 2
15 September 2016