Theresa May has staunchly defended selling arms to Saudi Arabia despite the country facing accusations of war crimes, insisting close ties “keep people on the streets of Britain safe”.
Jeremy Corbyn called on the Prime Minister to halt those sales because of the “humanitarian devastation” caused by a Saudi-led coalition waging war against rebels in Yemen.
The Labour leader spoke out after the Parliamentary committee charged with scrutinising arms exports said it was likely that British weapons had been used to violate international law. The Saudis stand accused of bombing multiple international hospitals run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as schools, wedding parties and food factories.
In the Commons, Mr Corbyn linked weapons sales to the ongoing refugee crisis, which he said should be Britain’s “number one concern and our number one humanitarian response”.
He added: “That is why I remain concerned that at the heart of this Government’s security strategy is apparently increased arms exports to the very part of the world that most immediately threatens our security. The British Government continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia that are being used to commit crimes against humanity in Yemen, as has been clearly detailed by the UN and other independent agencies.”
But, in response, Ms May pointed out she had called on Saudi Arabia to investigate the allegations about Yemen when she met with the kingdom’s deputy crown prince at the recent G20 summit in China.
The Prime Minister dismissed Mr Corbyn’s suggestion that “what happened in Saudi Arabia was a threat to the safety of people here in the UK”.
Instead, she said: “Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”
In a leaked draft report, the Committee on Arms Exports Control echoed both the European Parliament and the Commons International Development Select Committee in calling for arms sales to the autocracy to end.
“The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia,” it said, the BBC’s Newsnight programme reported.
The Government has argued it has not seen evidence of Saudi war crimes which Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said last week meant a “key test” for halting sales had not been met.
It signed off £3.3bn of arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the country’s bombardment of Yemen, which includes £2.2bn-worth of so-called ML10 licences – equipment including drones, helicopters, and other aircraft. A further £1.1bn-worth of ML4 licences were also issued – relating to bombs, missiles, grenades, and countermeasures. The UK additionally signed off £430,000 of licences for armoured vehicles and tanks.
But before MPs broke for the summer recess in July, ministers quietly rowed back on claims they were confident Saudi Arabia had not committed war crimes. They issued corrections on previous statements, stating simply that they had not actively seen evidence of any such alleged crimes.
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