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We need an honest assessment of Saudi Arabia's use of UK arms in Yemen

In a war such as Yemen’s there are plenty of uncertainties, but the one thing that we deserve to be clear about is that human rights have not been deliberately violated in the cause of a vicious, dirty proxy war with Iran

Tuesday 23 August 2016 18:51 BST
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Oxfam has claimed that British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia are a violation of international law
Oxfam has claimed that British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia are a violation of international law (Reuters)

In return for selling the Saudi Arabian government vast quantities of armaments over many decades – some £3.3bn in value in the last year alone, much of it for the war in Yemen – Britain asked for comparatively little in return. One of the few conditions required of these deals was a commitment not to target civilians. The charge now is that the Saudis have breached that condition.

Oxfam claim that the British Government is in denial over the Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign in Yemen. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said that certain Saudi coalition air strikes against civilian targets appear to be war crimes. The European Parliament and the House of Commons International Development Committee have also called for an end to the bombings. The Saudis and the British Government dispute these claims.

What cannot be in dispute is that a humanitarian disaster has befallen Yemen, and that NGO-administered hospitals and other civilian targets have been hit. What is less clear is the precise circumstances of each attack and whether, for example, the Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi-led coalition forces have bases or operations placed, deliberately or accidentally, close to schools, residential housing and hospitals. No one regards the Houthi, al-Qaida or Isis forces occupying parts of Yemen as exemplars of democracy and human rights, it is worth adding.

In practical terms, the onus for determining the extent of any war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition, and of the culpability of Houthi forces, rests with the British Government. For it is they who must determine whether the terms of our arms treaties have been breached, and whether arms supplies should be cut off. The responses by ministers have been confused and confusing. In the past, Foreign Office ministers have been equivocal; now the Government is absolutely certain, apparently, that Saudi Arabia has not broken any of its commitments and, by implication, has therefore not infringed human rights or committed war crimes.

What is missing here is a convincing account by the British authorities of what has been happening in Yemen. That is not beyond Number 10 to organise. Better still would be a properly impartial and independent investigation, and, to be fair, one that takes into account the testimony of the Saudis and the others concerned. Given the bitterness of the war in Yemen and the severe risk it poses to the stability of Riyadh, that is probably unrealistic.

As the release of fresh documents on the record-breaking Al-Yamamah arms deal with the Saudis in 1985 shows, Britain has enjoyed an unusually close relationship with the House of Saud for many years, including warm relations with the House of Windsor. There is undoubtedly influence that works in both directions, and it is not in anyone’s interests for Saud Arabia to fall into the kind of chaos that has overtaken Syria or Iraq.

This is a moment when the Anglo-Saudi relationship ought to be informed by an honest assessment of what has been happening to the UK armaments sold to Saudi Arabia for defensive use. In a war such as Yemen’s there are plenty of uncertainties, but the one thing that we deserve to be clear about is that human rights have not been deliberately violated in the cause of a vicious, dirty proxy war with Iran. Our Government can do a much better job of offering an answer to that. That is not too much to ask.

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