The UK government has said that its heart “goes out” to relatives of people killed when a Saudi-led air strike bombed a wedding, but that it still refuses to halt arms sales to the country.
Foreign minister Harriet Baldwin said Britain had been told by Saudi Arabia that an investigation would be launched into the incident in the Yemeni civil war, which left 20 people at the wedding party dead including the bride.
But she stood by the UK’s on-going arms trade with Saudi, worth £4.6bn since the start of the Yemen conflict, arguing that the Middle Eastern country has adequate systems to ensure operations comply with international law.
Ministers were called to parliament in the wake of the latest tragedy, with many of those killed at the wedding said to be women and children.
Ms Baldwin said the government was aware of “significant civilian causalities” resulting from the Saudi-led coalition air strike.
She told MPs: “We take these reports extremely seriously. The Saudi-led coalition has confirmed that it will carry out an investigation.
“It is essential that this happens without delay, the results are published and that the lessons learned are acted upon.
“Our hearts go out to the families of those killed. We call upon all parties to comply with international humanitarian law.”
Ms Baldwin called for “a political settlement” to the conflict as the “only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen”, she did not explicitly criticise Saudi Arabia or even say that she condemned the attack.
Instead, she addressed her words at all sides of the conflict, saying: “The Yemeni parties must engage constructively and in good faith to overcome obstacles and find a political solution to end the conflict.”
She said the UK would be a “candid friend” to Saudi Arabia, encouraging the country’s leaders to the negotiating table – but also advising and training Saudi military personnel.
It is not the first time the Saudi-led coalition has bombed a wedding in Yemen, with witnesses saying around 60 were killed in an incident in 2015.
On Tuesday Ms Baldwin was forced to attend the Commons after an urgent question was tabled by Labour MP Stephen Twigg, who highlighted how the Ministry of Defence’s own figures show there have been 42 potential violations of international humanitarian law in just three months at the beginning of 2018.
That was compared to 66 incidents throughout the whole of last year, leading to Mr Twigg to call for an end of arms sales to Saudi Arabia during his speech.
He was backed by Lib Dem MP Tom Brake and the SNP’s Chris Law, who highlighted the sale of 48 fighter jets to the kingdom, announced during a high profile UK visit of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, last month.
Mr Law quoted information that of 17,000 Saudi-led coalition air strikes, one third have hit non-military targets.
But the minister rebutted the calls, highlighting a UK High Court decision that found that Saudi Arabia did have systems in place to ensure its actions complied with international humanitarian law, thus negating any need to halt arms sales to the country.
She focussed her speech on the horrendous situation still unfolding in Yemen, which she said is the “largest humanitarian crisis in the world” with more than 22 million people in need of help.
Some 17 million are estimated to have no reliable access to food, and eight million are facing “extreme food shortages” amid the on-going conflict, she said.
She pointed out that the Government has paid some £117m of support to Yemen and last year the UK was the second largest donor to the UN for the crisis.
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