MPs to grill foreign minister over use of UK weapons in Yemen

Tobias Ellwood faces tough questions in investigation into arms exports to Saudi Arabia

By Frederika Whitehead | 15 April 2016

MPs to grill foreign minister over use of UK weapons in Yemen
Bombing campaign: Saudi air strike in Sana’a, Yemen

MPs to grill foreign minister over use of UK weapons in YemenForeign minister Tobias Ellwood is to be grilled in a parliamentary inquiry into whether UK arms have been used in the war in Yemen.

MPs on the House of Commons committee on arms export controls will quiz Ellwood, the minister with responsibility for the Middle East, about the UK’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

They will question the minister about whether Saudi Arabia, a key ally of the UK in the Middle East, has used British weapons in its military action in support of Yemen’s president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled the country last year after Iran-backed rebels took control of the capital, Sana’a. Ellwood is pictured to the right with Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, the Saudi prince and vice-foreign minister in 2014.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office confirmed to Exaro that Ellwood is due to appear before the committee on a date to be agreed.

Ellwood said in Parliament in July last year, and again in November: “We have received repeated assurances from the Saudi Arabian-led coalition that they are complying with international humanitarian law, and we continue to engage with them on those assurances.”

Tom Brake, MP and foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: “Minister Ellwood and the government must now focus on investigating whether UK arms are, or have been, used indiscriminately by the Saudis in Yemen, and not on promoting weapons’ sales.”

Amnesty International, Oxfam and Saferworld commissioned Philippe Sands, a barrister, to provide a formal opinion on the legality of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. He told the committee on arms export controls in an evidence session on Wednesday that continuing such sales breaks international agreements on arms control because of what he says is evidence of their use in Yemen.

He also said: “You cannot just rely on reassurances of others, and you cannot just say that it is for others to form a view on this, not governments.”

Paul Everitt, chief executive of ADS, the trade body for the UK defence and aerospace industry, told the committee on Wednesday: “The UK export licensing regime is widely regarded as one of the most robust and transparent that operates around the world.”

A Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab countries began air strikes in Yemen in March last year in an offensive against the Houthi rebels. But it is accused of targeting civilians.

A report by the United Nations in January said that Saudi forces were carrying out “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets. The UN report outlined 119 Saudi-led strikes that were in breach of international humanitarian law. It also said that Houthi forces were using landmines and other indiscriminate weapons in illegal attacks.

The report led Jeremy Corbyn, opposition leader, to challenge David Cameron at prime minister’s questions in January over the role of UK weapons sold to Saudi Arabia. Cameron said that the UK had “the strictest rules for arms exports of almost any country anywhere in the world”.

The UK government denies that Saudi Arabia has been targeting civilians in Yemen.

The UN estimates that, one year into the conflict, 6,400 people have been killed – half of them civilians – and another 30,000 injured. One person in 10 has been “displaced” by the war.

Several non-government organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam and Campaign Against the Arms Trade have called for a suspension of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, pending an investigation into whether and how they are being used in Yemen.

There is growing concern in Parliament about the war in Yemen, and the possible role of UK arms. At least 27 MPs and 7 Lords have put down more than 100 parliamentary questions about the issue.

In February, MEPs voted in favour – by 359 to 212 – of an arms embargo across the European Union to Saudi Arabia. The vote is not legally binding, but MEPs hoped that it would pressure EU member states to call a halt to such exports.

The committee on arms export controls is holding an inquiry to investigate whether any UK arms exported to Saudi Arabia have been used in Yemen. MPs are asking whether Saudi Arabia has infringed any restrictions imposed on any UK licences for such exports. They will also examine how UK arms sales to the Gulf region are helping UK interests there.

Meanwhile, a ceasefire began in Yemen on Sunday ahead of peace talks among Yemeni groups due to start on Monday, brokered by the UN.

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