MPs urge halt to UK arms sales over Saudi Arabia 'human rights breaches'

  • Video report by ITV News political correspondent Carl Dinnen

All sales of UK weapons which could be used in Saudi Arabia's military action in Yemen should be halted until the completion of an independent inquiry into alleged breaches of human rights, a parliamentary report has said.

The joint report by the House of Commons Business and International Development Committees said it had been presented with evidence of "clear violations" of international humanitarian law (IHL).

They include the death of 47 civilians - among them 21 women and 15 children - and injuries to 58 more when a house hosting a wedding party was struck by two missiles fired by military aircraft.

  • 'Rival report'

But the publication exposed deep differences between MPs on the issue, as the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) released its own rival report insisting that exports should be blocked only if the UK courts rule the weapons sales unlawful.

The highly unusual decision to publish two simultaneous reports is a mark of the depth of controversy over claims that UK-made armaments are being used in indiscriminate bombing raids on civilian targets by the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shia rebels known as the Houthis in Yemen.

The FAC's Conservative chairman Crispin Blunt is understood to have drawn up the rival document after objecting to proposals to issue the call for immediate suspension under the banner of the House of Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) - a panel which brings together the cross-party committees for Business, Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Development.

Conservative MP Chris White, who chaired the CAEC inquiry into the exports and is a member of the Business Committee, said: "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.

Pictures taken by ITV News show what life is like for Yemen's civilians. Credit: ITV News

"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."

Labour MP Stephen Twigg, chair of the International Development Committee, added: "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."

Smoke and debris rise from the site of a Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen last month. Credit: Reuters

The FAC report backed an independent UN-led investigation into allegations of human rights violations, but said that the courts are the most appropriate body to decide whether the Government has broken the law by permitting continued sales.

Amnesty International UK's arms control director Oliver Sprague said: "This 'war of the reports' shouldn't become a distraction from the very simple fact that the UK is arming Saudi Arabia while the Saudi-led coalition is behind wave after wave of indiscriminate bombing in Yemen.

"Thousands of Yemeni civilians have already been killed and injured in devastating Saudi-led airstrikes on hospitals, schools and homes - what clearer demonstration of the risk of sending more arms to Saudi Arabia does the Government need?"

A Government spokeswoman said:

The aftermath of an airstrike in Yemen. Credit: ITV News