Hilary Benn demands Philip Hammond comes clean on Saudi Arabia human rights claims in Yemen

Posted On: 
22nd July 2016

Hilary Benn has demanded the Government comes clean over false assurances it was keeping an eye on Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen to check for breaches of humanitarian law.

A United Nations panel has raised human rights concerns about more than 100 missions conducted by the Saudis over Yemen
Credit: 
PA Images

In an astonishing statement yesterday a minister corrected a range of claims that there has been no law broken by Riyadh since the civil war in Yemen started in 2015.

Foreign Minister Tobias Ellwood admitted the Government had in fact not assessed whether international humanitarian law had been violated nor whether civilians have been targeted.

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Former Shadow Foreign Secretary Mr Benn today demanded clarity on the corrections, arguing the Government was “failing to live up to its moral responsibilities” on the issue.

In a letter to former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Mr Benn demanded an explanation as to why “inaccurate” claims had been made.

And he called on the Government to assess whether humanitarian law had been breached by Saudi Arabia or risk “further undermining Britain’s standing in the world”.

“These are not minor clarifications. Your original answers stated that an assessment had been made and a conclusion reached that IHL (International Humanitarian Law) had not been breached,” Mr Benn wrote.

“However, the amendments reveal that no such assessment had been made as to whether IHL had been breached.

“I would be grateful if you could provide me with an explanation as to why you gave inaccurate answers on such a crucial point on so many occasions and when you first became aware that your replies were inaccurate.”

Mr Benn added: “The Government is failing to live up to its moral responsibilities on this issue and I urge Boris Johnson as the new Foreign Secretary to ensure that the Government does what you originally said it was doing and immediately assess whether IHL has been breached.

“A continued failure to undertake such an assessment would be an abdication of responsibility and will serve to further undermine Britain’s standing in the world.”

THE CORRECTIONS

Since the conflict started in March 2015, thousands of people have been killed in fighting between Houthi rebels and the Yemeni army, which remains loyal to President Hadi.

A Saudi-led coalition is launching airstrikes against Houthi forces and has been accused of numerous humanitarian breaches since it began operations.

Responding to a parliamentary question in February, then-foreign secretary Mr Hammond said: “We have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL (International Humanitarian Law) by the coalition.”

But in a Written Ministerial Statement yesterday, Mr Elwood said the answer should have read: “We have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition.”

A written answer in January claiming there was “no evidence” humanitarian law had been breached was yesterday corrected to say the Government had been “unable to assess the matter”.

In June, former foreign minister David Lidington told a debate the government had decided the Saudis were “not targeting civilians”, but apparently should have said “the MOD has not assessed that the Saudi-led coalition is targeting civilians”.

The Scottish National Party has insisted Britain is effectively taking part in the airstrikes since it supplies Saudi Arabia with arms - a notion rejected by the Government.

But an assertion made in March that the Government was making “our own assessments” as to whether the arms supplied by Britain were being used in the conflict was yesterday changed to read:

“We make it clear that we are doing our own analysis. We encourage the Saudis to conduct their own investigations to understand whether the equipment we sell has any participation in that and indeed whether the breaches are by the Houthis or the Saudi Arabians.”

IHL CONCLUSIONS 'NOT POSSIBLE'

The statement released yesterday - one of a barrage put out by the Government on the final day of parliament containing damning revelations - added: 

“It is important to make clear that neither the MOD nor the FCO reaches a conclusion as to whether or not an IHL violation has taken place in relation to each and every incident of potential concern that comes to its attention.

“This would simply not be possible in conflicts to which the UK is not a party, as is the case in Yemen.”

A United Nations panel has raised concerns about more than 100 missions conducted by the Saudis over Yemen.

The British Government has backed a Saudi investigation into the alleged crimes, while in March Mr Hammond said Britain would support the Saudi effort "in every practical way short of engaging in combat".