Government prioritising Saudi arms deals over Yemeni lives - Margaret Ferrier MP

Posted On: 
8th June 2016

With revelations that Saudi Arabia is using British munitions to kill thousands of Yemeni civilians, many of them children, SNP’s Margaret Ferrier is fighting for an arms embargo.

A Yemeni boy who was injured by a Saudi-led airstrike, stands at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen.
Credit: 
Hani Mohammed/PA

Internationally outlawed and British-made ‘cluster bombs’ are being used on Yemeni civilians in Saudi Arabian air strikes, an MP has said, as she calls for an immediate suspension of UK arms to the regime.

6,400 civilians, 900 of them children, have been killed in the first year of intervention in Yemen; according to the UN, ‘virtually all’ have been at the hands of Saudi-led airstrikes. Amnesty International has recently found evidence that many of these deaths are attributed to the use of illegal cluster munitions - indiscriminate bombs containing several thousand ‘bomblets’ - that were made in the UK.

The SNP’s Margaret Ferrier, along with MPs from all political parties, is demanding that Britain disassociates itself from the tragedy immediately, and is leading a backbench debate today to gather support.

“We’re calling for an immediate suspension of arms and export licences to stop arming Saudi Arabia,” said Ferrier. “Because evidence suggests that UK weapons are being used in Yemen, with total disregard for international law.”

From the 70s to the 90s cluster bombs were standard weaponry for many nations. Yet due to their inherent imprecision - and the fact that many bomblets fail to detonate creating a de facto minefield in civilian territory, as they have done in Yemen - 100 countries signed the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions banning their use, transfer or stockpile.

“The UK signed up to that,” added Ferrier, “but their argument is that the cluster munitions that Amnesty found date back to the 1970s. So they’re using that to get out of the debate.

“It’s incredible. Surely they should be speaking to Saudi Arabia and asking them to come clean about their remaining stockpile, and getting them to agree to destroy them so they don’t get used in future.”

However the issue extends far beyond the headlines over cluster munitions. UK weaponry is aiding the Saudi regime’s repression of its own population, she argues, whilst British jets and other weapons are used in airstrikes which “even the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs has condemned, because they’re clearly in contravention of international humanitarian law.”

The Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, adopted in 2000, prohibits the sale of arms where:

“There is a clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression,” or “might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”

In December, Amnesty International sought advice from legal experts on arms sales to Saudi Arabia under these criteria, who determined such sales were categorically unlawful.

UK arms to Saudi Arabia have totalled £5.6bn since 2010, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, making it by far the leading customer of the UK arms industry. The main supplier is BAE systems who provide fleets of combat aircraft, but other deals include ongoing maintenance and training and other munitions. Only the US supplies more munitions to the regime, and not by much.

“I honestly don’t see the Government doing anything about it,” said Ferrier. “You can imagine the UK won’t want to do away with that business.

“The response I keep getting from Government is that the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia is very important to them, because of the anti-terror intelligence they share with the UK.

“That’s the fear factor that they tend to use, but unfortunately all of the human rights abuses go completely unnoticed.”

The UK arms trade with Saudi has come under corruption investigations in the past. In 2006 the UK government forced the Serious Fraud Office to abandon an investigation into bribery to allow a deal to go through. This was subsequently picked up by the US authorities, and BAE Systems was fined.

That same year, former UK Defence Secretary Ian Gilmour told Newsnight: “You either got the business and bribed, or you didn’t bribe and didn’t get the business. You either went along with how the Saudis behaved, or what they wanted, or you let the US and France have all the business.”

In today’s debate, Ferrier will also be addressing the human rights record of the Saudi regime on its own people: banning political parties and public protest, the extensive use of the death penalty, the oppression of women and the Shia minority, and various specific cases of political imprisonment.

“Trade should not come on the back of human rights abuses,” she said. “We need to be very clear about that. I am.”