Labour MPs rebel against party's own motion calling for action on Saudi Arabian war crimes

MPs defended Britain's relationship with the autocracy

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Over 100 Labour MPs have failed to back the party’s own motion calling for an independent UN investigation into alleged Saudi Arabian war crimes in Yemen and the withdrawal of UK support for bombings in light of alleged atrocities.

The Labour front bench brought forward the motion condemning Saudi Arabian bombing of civilians, calling for an independent UN investigation, and for the British Government to take a step back from supporting the autocracy – but saw it defeated after critics of the leadership line refused to vote for it.

The UK continues to sell the country billions in weapons despite widespread reports of the bombing of hospitals, schools, weddings and food factories. The British Government has meanwhile repeatedly said that Saudi Arabia is best placed to investigate its own alleged atrocities. Saudi Arabia has absolved itself of any serious or deliberate wrongdoing.

A number of Labour MPs, mostly centrists, spoke critically of the Labour motion. It was rejected by Parliament by 283 votes to 193 with around 100 Labour MPs either not voting for it or abstaining.

Labour’s John Woodcock said he supported the call for a UN investigation but did not support the part of the motion calling for the UK to withdraw its support for the Saudi-led force. He said this was “making it very hard for many of us to vote for” the motion.

“The coalition is precisely focused on training Saudis to be better able to be in compliance with international humanitarian law so that our interventions, if effective, will create fewer civilian casualties,” he said.

“Can she explain why she has insisted, despite a number of us asking about this, keeping in the motion the fact that the UK should withdraw support for the coalition, making it very hard for many of us to vote for it?”

Labour MP Toby Perkins said he could not support with withdrawal of support from Saudi Arabia and that Britain had “significant economic interest in continuing to have positive relations with the Saudis”.

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The motion was proposed by Emily Thornberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary (House of Commons)

“It is true that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is not an easy one, but we do wield some influence and our security is enhanced by the relationship,” he said.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, once a secretive, suspicious and insular country, now sends its ministers here to be scrutinised by MPs in the Houses of Parliament. 

“Other Members have referred to our significant economic interest in continuing to have positive relations with the Saudis, and to the fact that they have been a useful ally for our own security in the past and today. 

“For years, the west has asked Saudi Arabia to take on more responsibility for what happens in the region, and it is now doing so. None of this means that we should ignore or underplay the significance of infractions of international humanitarian law, but we should think very carefully before isolating Saudi Arabia in the way that the motion suggests.”

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Labour MP Toby Perkins said cutting off support for Saudi Arabia would be a mistake (House of Commons)

On the investigation of alleged atrocities by the Saudi-led force, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, said that “the Saudi Government have thus far approached the matter with the great seriousness it deserves”.

He added: “The House should be in no doubt that we are monitoring the situation minutely and meticulously, and that we will continue to apply our established criteria for granting licences with fairness and rigour and in full accordance with UK law.”

The shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thronberry, who proposed the motion, said: “There must be an investigation into all the thousands of attacks on civilian sites, not just nine of them, and into all the thousands of civilian deaths, not just a few hundred of them. 

“We need to know whether Yemen’s agricultural sector has been deliberately targeted in breach of international humanitarian law. We need to know whether elements of the coalition air forces are routinely operating in a reckless and indiscriminate way. We need to know whether that deliberate error in Sana’a was a one-off or part of a more systemic problem. 

“Finally, from a UK perspective, if there have been violations of international humanitarian law, we need to know whether UK-manufactured weapons and planes have been used to commit those violations. 

“With all due respect to the individuals who make up Saudi’s JIAT, its output to date – whether in terms of volume, speed or content – gives no confidence that it can carry out this type of comprehensive investigation, let alone an independent one.”

In September Britain was accused by Human Rights Watch and other campaign groups of blocking an independent UN investigation into Saudi war crimes.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade has won the right to legally challenge British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with a judicial review expected early next year.

The motion proposed by Ms Thornberry read: “That this House supports efforts to bring about a cessation of hostilities and provide humanitarian relief in Yemen, and notes that the country is now on the brink of famine; condemns the reported bombings of civilian areas that have exacerbated this crisis; believes that a full independent UN-led investigation must be established into alleged violations of international humanitarian law in the conflict in Yemen; and calls on the Government to suspend its support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces in Yemen until it has been determined whether they have been responsible for any such violations.”

Theresa May refuses to say whether Saudi Arabia will have British backing on UN membership

Saudi Arabia is intervening in Yemen against Houthi rebels, who control large parts of the country. They have the backing of the internationally recognised Yemeni government, which no longer controls the country's capital.

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