The Foreign Office released a statement hours before Parliament rose for summer recess that “corrected” six awkward statements by its former foreign secretary.
The revisions removed Philip Hammond’s assurances that Britain was conducting investigations into alleged violations of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, as well as his claims that no evidence had been found in these investigations of war crimes or other international law violations. It will not have escaped those following the conflict in Yemen that our government is facing legal action over its arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The High Court’s decision on 30 June granted the Campaign Against Arms Trade a three-day judicial review hearing to determine whether government-approved arms sales to Saudi Arabia breach UK arms export laws.
The government appears to be tinkering with Hammond’s past statements because it could be forced to make public what it has been doing to ensure Saudi Arabia is not using British bombs and planes in alleged war crimes on Yemeni civilians.
The evidence that serious violations of international law have taken place in this conflict is now, however, overwhelming, and any impartial observer will see that these crimes are happening.
As I have written before, schools, ports, factories and water facilities in rebel-held areas have been attacked by the British-armed Saudi Royal Air Force.
In January, the UN reported 119 indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including strafing by helicopter gunships.
Saudi Arabia’s entry from the sky into Yemen’s civil war in March last year left four in five citizens in need of aid, a health service in ruins, and half of the population on the brink of famine. Under UK arms export law, the government is obliged to block weapons sales to states that are at a “clear risk” of violating international humanitarian law, such as indiscriminate bombing raids.
If the government has evidence of such crimes, a court could find Britain complicit in them.
If, as the government’s amendments to Hammond’s statements suggest, the UK does nothing to investigate those possible violations, our arms export control laws are not worth the paper they are printed on.
Our arms export control system is designed to stop British weapons from needlessly killing civilians.
It seems as if the government is bending over backwards to subvert these protections to allow private arms companies to continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia – the UK has licenced £2.8bn worth of arms to the House of Saud since its bombing campaign began in March 2015.
I hope the Committees on Arms Export Controls publishes its report on British arms sales to Saudi Arabia quickly. Its members may be able to wait until after their summer holidays before they issue advice to the government – but the long-suffering people of Yemen cannot.
Diane Abbott is Shadow Health Secretary and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
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