Ministers have quietly issued reams of corrections to previous ministerial statements in which they claimed that Saudi Arabia is not targeting civilians or committing war crimes
The autocratic petro-state is currently engaged in a bombing campaign in Yemen where it has blown up hospitals, schools, and weddings as part of its intervention against Houthi rebels.
Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, has said that “carnage” caused by certain Saudi coalition airstrikes against civilian targets appear to be war crimes.
Britain has been a staunch defender of the dictatorship’s assault, with UK arms companies supplying billions in weapons and ministers staking their reputation on the conduct of the Saudi Arabian armed forces.
However as MPs went back to their constituencies for recess on Thursday the Foreign Office admitted six ministerial statements from the past year “did not fully reflect” the real situation.
In many cases ministers had denied war crimes were being committed – statements the FCO now believes went too far. Instead, ministers were meant to only say that they had not actively confirmed that war crimes were being committed.
In February then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond had said “we have assessed that there has not been a breach of international humanitarian law by the coalition”, the Foreign Office noted.
It added: “However, these should have stated … ‘we have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition’.”
On another occasion, the FCO noted, Mr Hammond, who is now the Chancellor, had said:
“‘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.’
The correction continued: “This should have said, ‘…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.”
The UK has repeatedly refused calls from the European Parliament and House of Commons international development committee to stop selling weapons to the autocratic monarchy.
Oliver Sprague, Amnesty UK’s Arms Programme Director, said:
“This is jaw-dropping stuff. The government has admitted grossly misleading parliament no fewer than six times on issues as serious as the deaths of civilians in Yemen.
“The government has spent most of this year telling us that assessments had been conducted and it was confident that no breach of international law had occurred - when it’s now apparent no specific assessment of Saudi operations had been done whatsoever.
“It appears that what the UK government is admitting is to only having reviewed general Saudi procedures rather than investigating the many actual reports of unlawful attacks.
“It’s staggering that such a shameful admission is made at the eleventh hour on the last day of parliament. It’s not even doublespeak, it’s just plain wrong.”
A spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade, which has led calls for a boycott, said: “This is a stunning piece of back-peddling, and the timing feels very cynical.
“The corrections reveal that Philip Hammond's original statements were either totally wrong or outright distortions.
“UK arms have been central to the devastation inflicted on Yemen and it's time for the government to come clean about its role.”
Official figures reported by The Independent in January this year show sales of British bombs and missiles to the country increased 100 times in the three-month period since the start of the attacks on Yemen. The sales jumped from £9m in the previous three months to £1bn.
Mr Cameron, who stepped down as PM this week following the election of Theresa May to leader of the Conservative party, said in January that Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is “important for our own security”.
Last week The Independent reported that the UK government had refused to rule out re-electing Saudi Arabia to a key UN human rights council.
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