Skip to main content

UK arms sales must stop until human rights abuses investigated

15 September 2016

Image of UK Parliament portcullis

Claims that UK-supplied weapons have been used in military actions in Yemen that contravene International Humanitarian Law must be fully investigated by an independent, international inquiry. Until this has been completed, the UK must halt the sale of all weapons that could be used in the conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and rebel forces in Yemen.

The findings come in a joint report published today by the International Development Committee and Business, Innovation and Skills Committee of the House of Commons.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) 

We heard during our inquiry that there have been clear violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). For example, the UN was told that military aircraft dropped two missiles resulting in the complete destruction of a two-story house during a wedding party. 47 civilians, including 21 women and 15 children were killed, and 58 wounded.

Under criterion 2c of the UK's arms export licensing criteria the Government should not grant a licence where there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL. Given the evidence we have heard and the volume of UK-manufactured arms exported to Saudi Arabia, it seems inevitable that any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the coalition have involved arms supplied from the UK. This constitutes a breach of our own export licencing criteria.

Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT)

The Saudi-led coalition has established a Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT). However, they have been very slow to report their findings and of the nine incidents they have reported on, at least two contradict the evidence gathered by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. To address the uncertainty around the conduct of the conflict in Yemen, the UK Government must take the lead in establishing an international inquiry, backed by the United Nations, to provide credible and conclusive evidence. The message must be sent, to all participants in the conflict in Yemen, that humanitarian law must be respected.

Until claims of human rights abuses in Yemen have been fully investigated, and adequate guarantees in place that UK-made weapons are not being used in contravention of IHL, no new arms export licenses should be granted.

The Committees concluded that, in the case of Yemen, the arms export licencing regime has not worked. Following corrections to written answers and statements made in Parliament by Ministers on the conflict in Yemen, it is unclear what analysis the Government has undertaken to assess the risk that the UK arms transfers to Saudi Arabia might be used in breach of international humanitarian law. It must do more to establish a robust, transparent arms licensing process that responds to changing international circumstances and reacts to evidence of serious infractions.

Chairs' comments:

On publishing the report, Chris White, who chaired the inquiry of the Committees on Arms Export Controls (and is a member of the Business Innovation and Skills Committee), commented:

"The UK led the way in establishing international humanitarian law to govern the sale of arms. The conflict in Yemen has raised serious concerns that we are not showing equal determination in ensuring that these are respected.

During this inquiry we have heard evidence from respected sources that weapons made in the UK have been used in contravention of International Humanitarian Law. The Government can no longer wait and see and must now take urgent action, halting the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition until we can be sure that there is no risk of violation.

"...human rights must be respected"

We call on the Government to continue the UK's long-standing commitment to IHL and lead the international community in establishing a strong, independent inquiry. The circumstances surrounding incidents in Yemen, such as allegations of the use of cluster bombs, must be firmly established and send a clear message to all combatants in Yemen that human rights must be respected.

The current system for overseeing the sale of arms must be improved. At present we do not have sufficient transparency to hold licensing decisions to account or the confidence that the benchmarks ensuring human rights law is respected are high enough. This must be addressed immediately."

Stephen Twigg, Chair of the International Development Committee, commented:

"We remain unconvinced that Saudi Arabia is best placed to investigate reports of breaches of humanitarian law – progress so far has been too slow.

It is important to remember that both sides to the conflict are potentially involved in breaches of humanitarian law and without credible investigations, neither side is being held accountable for their actions.

The current UN Human Rights Council is an excellent opportunity for the UK Government to make a serious call for independent UN-led investigation into what has happened.

Arms trade law

Arms trade law is very clear that licences should not be granted where there is a clear risk that they might be used in a serious violation of IHL. It is hard to understand how a reliable licence assessment process would not have concluded that there is a clear risk of misuse of at least some arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

While much focus has been on the UK's arms sales to Saudi Arabia, it should not be forgotten that Yemen is one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world where 82% of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. The conflict has destroyed schools and hospitals, nearly 3 million people have fled their homes, the health system and the economy are on the brink of collapse and many parts of the country are teetering on the edge of famine. If anyone is paying the price for this conflict it is the people of Yemen."

Main recommendations

  • The UK Government must use its influence to ensure all parties involved in the conflict in Yemen comply with IHL, minimise harm to civilians and protect civilian infrastructure. There must be on-going review of any evidence provided by a range of sources.
  • The UK Government cannot meet its obligations under the Convention on Cluster Munitions by relying on assurances from Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Defence must carry out its own investigation into the alleged use of a UK-supplied cluster bomb by coalition forces in Yemen. They must also outline the steps taken to ensure that no UK-supplied aircraft or UK personnel have been implicated in the use or deployment of cluster munitions.
  • The UK Government should provide assistance to the Joint Incident Assessment Team, established to investigate allegations on IHL, to ensure it is transparent, credible and published its investigations in a timely manner.
  • The Committees believe an independent, United Nations-led investigation of alleged violations by all parties involved in conflict in Yemen in necessary to supplement the internal investigation of the Saudi-led coalition. The UK Government should support calls for such an investigation as a matter of urgency.
  • The UK Government must provide more detail on the role of UK personnel in Saudi Arabia, in particular answering the following questions:
  1. How many UK personnel are assisting the Saudi Arabian armed forces and in what roles, including BAE Systems employees;
  2. What is the extent of the involvement of each group of UK personnel with the Saudis' operations in Yemen; and
  3. How are UK personnel advising the Saudi Arabian armed forces on IHL and what level of understanding do they have of the coalition's regard for IHL in its operations in Yemen.
  • The UK Government must restore the credibility of the UK of its arms export licensing regime by issuing a public explanation of its risk assessment process and explain what level of risk would trigger the refusal of a licence. They should also provide greater transparency to the process by providing further details on:
  1. The changes in information, assessment methods and political direction which have occurred since the war in Yemen began;
  2. How differences in opinion between the departments involved in licensing are resolved; and
  3. How often decisions are being referred up the chain of political responsibility, and how far up these decisions go.
  • The arms export licensing system has not worked in the case of Yemen. The UK must suspend licenses for arms exports to Saudi Arabia pending the results of an independent, United Nations-led inquiry into reports of violations of IHL. In addition, the UK Government should investigate whether any licences so far issued have led to the transfer of weapons which have been used in breach of IHL. This suspension must remain in place until the UN-led inquiry provide evidence that the risk of such exports being used in the commission of serious violations of IHL has subsided.
  • The Government should reassess whether the Department for International Development should be involved formally in arms exports licence decisions in addition to those under under Criterion 8, for example those under Criterion 3 ("Internal situation in the country of final destination") and Criterion 4 ("Preservation of regional peace, security and stability") giving regard to the use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen. We also recommend that Criterion 8 be expanded to consider whether the proposed transfer would seriously undermine the economy or seriously hamper the sustainable development of the recipient country, and the country or countries where the proposed transfer might ultimately be used.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto