12 August 2016
Mr Chris White MP
Chair of the Committees on Arms Exports Controls
House of Commons
Thank you for your letter of 29 July to the Foreign Secretary regarding your concerns over corrections made to the parliamentary record on 21 July. I am responding on the Foreign Secretary’s behalf as Minister responsible for the Middle East.
On 24 June it was brought to the attention of officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that there were inconsistencies in two of our replies to parliamentary questions.
In order to ensure ministers’ information to parliament was accurate and consistent, officials thoroughly reviewed all our parliamentary responses and debates on this subject since March 2015. Amongst over 90 references, we found four further inconsistencies. These were set out in the Written Ministerial Statement, a copy of which is attached.
As I am sure you can appreciate, given the significant interest in Yemen the process of reviewing all written parliamentary questions, ministerial correspondence and parliamentary debates was considerable. The necessary liaison across three departments (MOD, FCO and DfID) during a period of new government appointments meant this was a substantial task. Unfortunately, given the changes in ministerial appointments, there were delays to the standard clearance processes and we were not in a position to issue the corrections until 21 July.
The phrase “earliest opportunity” will always require definition in relation to the details of each case. In this instance, I am satisfied that the necessary corrections were made without undue delay given the importance of the issue and the need to review thoroughly the parliamentary record at a time of government change.
Additionally, we are aware of calls for an independent, international investigation into violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Yemen. The Government is not opposing calls for an international independent investigation, but, first and foremost, we want to see the Saudis investigate allegations of breaches of IHL which have been made against them; and for their investigations to be thorough and conclusive. This is the standard we set ourselves and our allies. Saudi Arabia has publicly stated that it is investigating reports of alleged violations of IHL, and has released outcomes of its investigations on 31 January and 4 August, and that any lessons learned will be acted upon.
These clarifications have ensured that responses provided to parliamentary questions and debates are now consistent, and accurately reflect Government policy. In no way do they represent a change in policy.
I welcome the work of the CAEC and we await the outcome of your inquiry with interest. I would be happy to meet with you and other CAEC members to discuss this matter further.
TOBIAS ELLWOOD MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State
Written Ministerial Statement
21 July 2016
Corrections to Parliamentary Questions and Westminster Hall Debates
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Tobias Ellwood):
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has recently reviewed all correspondence and parliamentary proceedings on the subject of allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL) in Yemen by the Saudi-led Coalition. During this exercise it became clear that the drafting of answers to four written questions and two responses given in debates relating to allegations of breaches of IHL did not fully reflect HMG’s policy as set out in numerous other written questions and debates on this topic. I would like to clarify these.
The responses given on 12 February to Question 24770
() and on 15 February to Questions 24769 ) and 24771 () stated “we have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL by the coalition”. However, these should have stated, as in previous PQs such as 27085 answered on 24 February, “we have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition”.
The response given on 4 January to Question 15523
() stated “I regularly review the situation with my own advisers and have discussed it on numerous occasions with my Saudi counterpart. Our judgement is that there is no evidence that IHL has been breached, but we shall continue to review the situation regularly”. However, this should have stated “I regularly review the situation with my own advisers and have discussed it on numerous occasions with my Saudi counterpart. Looking at all the information available to us, we have been unable to assess that there has been a breach of IHL by the Saudi-led Coalition. The situation is kept under careful and continual review”.
During the Westminster Hall debate on Human Rights and Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia on 8 June (HC Deb, col WH138), the former Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my Rt Hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) said, “In respect of the allegations about breaches of international humanitarian law, the Ministry of Defence makes assessments of how the Saudis are acting and whether the coalition is observing international human rights obligations. The MOD assessment is that the Saudi-led coalition is not targeting civilians that Saudi processes and procedures have been put in place to ensure respect for the principles of international humanitarian law; and that the Saudis both have been and continue to be genuinely committed to compliance with international humanitarian law.” This should have said, “In respect of the allegations about breaches of international humanitarian law, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) analyses how the Saudis are acting and whether the coalition is observing international humanitarian law. The MOD has not assessed that the Saudi-led coalition is targeting civilians. We have assessed that Saudi processes and procedures have been put in place to ensure respect for the principles of international humanitarian law; and that the Saudis both have been and continue to be genuinely committed to compliance with international humanitarian law.”
During the Westminster Hall debate on War in Yemen: First Anniversary from 22 March (HC Deb, col WH518), I stated that, “we make it clear that 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.” This should have stated “we make it clear that we are doing our own analysis. 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 corrections ensure the answers given in all written questions and debates now accurately reflect HMG policy in this area and consistent with other statements and questions answered.
The MOD monitors incidents of alleged IHL violations using available information. This is used to form an overall view on the approach and attitude of Saudi Arabia to IHL. This, in turn, informs the risk assessment made under the Consolidated Criteria (i.e. whether there is a clear risk that it might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL). We are not acting to determine whether a sovereign state has or has not acted in breach of IHL, but instead - as Criterion 2(c) requires – we are acting to make an overall judgement.
It is important to make clear that neither the MOD nor the FCO reaches a conclusion as to whether or not an IHL violation has taken place in relation to each and every incident of potential concern that comes to its attention. This would simply not be possible in conflicts to which the UK is not a party, as is the case in Yemen.
We regularly encourage Saudi Arabia to investigate any allegations of breaches of IHL which are attributed to them; and for their investigations to be thorough and conclusive. Saudi Arabia has publicly stated that it is investigating reports of alleged violations, and that any lessons learned will be acted upon. We continue to believe that they have the best insight into their own military procedures, allowing them to understand what went wrong and apply the lessons learnt in the best possible way, if required. This is the standard we set ourselves and our allies. For example, when allegations have been made against us in Afghanistan and Iraq we have investigated these claims ourselves. We did not expect other states to do this and form judgements on our behalf.
15 September 2016