Britain's support for Saudi Arabia is making it harder to hold Russia to account for war crimes, Labour says

Clive Lewis, the shadow defence secretary, said Britain should take a more consistent approach

Jon Stone
Monday 26 September 2016 12:20 BST
People gather at the site of a Saudi-led air strike in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, 22 September, 2016
People gather at the site of a Saudi-led air strike in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, 22 September, 2016 (REUTERS)

Britain’s support for Saudi Arabia is undermining its attempts to hold other international powers like Russia to account for alleged war crimes, Labour’s shadow defence secretary has said.

Clive Lewis, a former soldier, said Russia should have “the full weight of international law” thrown at it if it was found to be committing war crimes in its bombardment of rebels in Syria.

But he warned that the UK’s support for Saudi Arabia’s widely-criticised military operation in Yemen was making it difficult to hold other countries to account – because the inconsistent approach offended an international “sense of fair play”.

This weekend Britain was accused of blocking EU efforts to set up an inquiry into Saudi Arabia’s actions in the country, where it is intervening on the side of the internationally-recognised government against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Ministers have dismissed claims that the reported bombing of international hospitals, schools and wedding parties by the autocracy amount to war crimes. They have repeatedly said that Saudi Arabia is best placed to investigate its own alleged crimes; Saudi Arabian investigations into its own actions have thus far absolved itself of any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile Russia has been accused of war crimes in its bombardment of anti Assad-forces in Syria, where it is intervening against enemies of the Syrian government. The accusations centre on the reported widespread use of so-called “bunker buster” bombs as well as incendiaries against civlians in the east of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

“Bunker-busting bombs, more suited to destroying military installations, are now destroying homes, decimating bomb shelters, crippling, maiming, killing dozens, if not hundreds,” Matthew Rycroft, the UK ambassador to the UN, said during the emergency security council session on Syria on Sunday.

Clive Lewis is Labour's defence spokesperson in the House of Commons (PA)

“Incendiary munitions, indiscriminate in their reach, are being dropped on to civilian areas so that, yet again, Aleppo is burning. And to cap it all, water supplies, so vital to millions, are now being targeted, depriving water to those most in need. In short, it is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.”

Mr Lewis, an ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, told the BBC’s Westminster Hour programme on Sunday that the stark contrast between the approach was making it difficult to consistently enforce international law.

“If the Russians are found guilty of this they should have everything thrown at them, the full weight of international law. I agree with that,” he said.

“But at the same time we want to be seen with an even hand, then the British government, the Conservative government, should be playing the same way with Saudi Arabia.

“I think it undermines our attempts to be able to hold Russia to account on this if it’s proven to be true, if at the same time we seem to be in denial because our so-called ally Saudi Arabia, who may also be committing humanitarian crimes – the UN seem to think that – you can’t play hard and fast with one group but not the other. So I think you need to have a sense of fair play with this.”

Mr Lewis served as an infantry officer in what was then the Territorial Army and fought in a tour of Afghanistan in 2009.

Britain has sold £3.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since its bombardment of Yemen started. The Government has ignored calls from the European Parliament and the House of Commons International Development Committee to stop granting licences for such arms sales. The Committee on Arms Export Control is split on whether such an embargo should go ahead.

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