Since 2015, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia have staged bombing campaigns, naval blockades and ground forces in Yemen. These attacks have focused on the Houthi rebels who ousted Yemeni President, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, after mass protests and discontent, but have also killed around 12,000 civilians, with millions more displaced and homeless.
The UK Government is backing the coalition, and since 2015 has reportedly licensed £5.3bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. Under UK export policy, military equipment licences should not be granted if there is a "clear risk" that weapons might be used in a "serious violation of international humanitarian law".
In June 2019, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government had not properly assessed this risk. However, last week the Secretary for International Trade, Liz Truss, announced that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were to resume.
Greg Hands MP: "isolated incidents"
Answering the urgent question on behalf of Secretary of State, Minister for Trade Policy Greg Hands told the House that, in line with the Court of Appeal's request, the Secretary of State had "retaken the licensing decisions".
Mr Hands said that all new and existing applications for Saudi Arabia would be assessed against the revised methodology, which considers whether the weapons would be used for a "serious violation of international humanitarian law".
However, he said that it was "extremely difficult to reach firm conclusions" about whether specific incidents did contradict international humanitarian law and therefore if a possible breach occurred it is be regarded as if it were a definite breach.
The Minister said that any such breaches were "isolated incidents" and that Saudi Arabia had a "genuine intent and the capacity to comply with international humanitarian law". He stated that the decision to resume arms sales was because the Secretary of State had assessed that there was "not a clear risk" that the weapons might be used in a serious violation of international human rights.
Today I uncovered figures showing widespread violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) July 13, 2020
The Government can longer claim these are "isolated incidents".
It must stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia immediately. pic.twitter.com/0OMVBVW43I
He concluded: "There is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law."
Emily Thornberry MP: "publish the full assessment"
Responding on behalf of the Opposition, Emily Thornberry said she was sorry the Secretary of State did not attend the House in person.
Ms Thornberry said she welcomed the Secretary of State's assessment of possible violations of international law, but asked why, over the past five years, ministers had said an assessment "was impossible for Britain to make" and "could only be made by Saudi Arabia". She asked if those ministers were "simply wrong".
The Shadow Minister questioned how many "isolated incidents" were identified, "so that we can understand how they define the word "isolated'". She also asked why the Government reported finding "no patterns of civilian infrastructure being targeted", when for 17 months Saudi planes "systematically destroyed" Yemen's means of food production.
She stated that "indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas is in itself a war crime", and asked therefore how the Government could say that the Saudis did not mean to break international law "because their violations 'occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons'", when that is the "very definition" of 'indiscriminate' .
Ms Thornberry also questioned why Saudi Arabia has failed to comply with international law why the Government concluded it had the capacity and intent to do so, and asked for the full review, including analysis of individual incidents, to be published.
The Member ended: "If the Minister believes this decision is not just moral and lawful but correct, then surely he has nothing to fear from publishing that assessment and letting us all decide for ourselves."