There have been 366 alleged war crimes in Yemen but only 79 investigations by the Saudi-led coalition and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has conducted no inquiries of its own, we can reveal.
A reply by the MoD to questions submitted under freedom of information law also revealed the UK government does not know how many investigations are ongoing, or whether any incidents involved smart bombs using laser guided missiles made in Scotland.
The UK government has faced criticism and legal challenges over its arms sales to Saudi Arabia but ministers have defended lucrative contracts with the Saudis by insisting it has “one of the most robust export control regimes in the world”.
The Department for International Trade, which sanctions export licences for arms sales, has repeatedly said that “risks around human rights abuses are a key part of its licensing assessment”.
But our revelations have called this into question and prompted fierce criticism of the UK government by politicians, human rights groups, and charities working on the ground in Yemen who are trying to cope with a humanitarian catastrophe.
The SNP said the number of alleged war crimes was “incredibly concerning” and called for end to arms sales while Amnesty International said the figures “make an absolute mockery of the government’s claim it has a ‘robust’ system for exporting arms”.
The MoD said the number of alleged violations of international humanitarian law listed on a “tracker” database was 381. Of these, 15 were duplicate entries, which means some alleged incidents were recorded on more than one occasion.
The MoD also said it does not have access to all the information required to assess whether war crimes have been committed, pointing out that investigations are conducted by the Saudi-led coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT).
“We do not know how many ongoing investigations the JIAT are conducting,” the MoD said, adding: “We do not have a full picture of which specific items have been used in Yemen.”
A damning report by Human Rights Watch in August accused the JIAT of failing to “provide credible, impartial, and transparent investigations into alleged coalition laws-of-war violations”.
Since Yemen’s war escalated in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has been accused of targeting schools, hospitals and civilian areas with airstrikes, prompting widespread criticism.
Meanwhile, a new report said that air raids have intensified this month. Of 42 air raids monitored by the Yemen Data Project, 62 per cent hit civilian targets.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford MP, said the Saudi-led coalition’s JIAT “does not carry any legitimacy”. He described the revelations of hundreds of alleged violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen as “incredibly concerning”.
He added: “It is even more worrying that the MoD is unaware of how many have been have been investigated. There must be a full and independent UN-led investigation into all violations in the conflict to ensure that all sides are held to account.
“The UK government is not a mere bystander in the war, it is an active player. Despite the mounting evidence of breaches in international law, the UK government is still content on looking the other way, whilst simultaneously supplying arms and military advice to the Saudi government. The sale of arms to the Saudi government must end now.
“If the UK aims to be a serious partner for peace, it must stop fuelling the conflict with billions of pounds worth of arms, and instead hold the Saudi regime to account.”
These figures make an absolute mockery of the government’s claim that the UK has a ‘robust’ system for exporting arms. Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International
Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s arms expert, said: “These figures make an absolute mockery of the government’s claim that the UK has a ‘robust’ system for exporting arms.
“With the MoD not even trying to investigate Coalition airstrikes and the UK relying on implausible Saudi assurances and the Coalition’s own woefully slow and deeply-flawed investigations, it’s clear that ministers have no reasonable means of assessing the risk that UK arms exported to Saudi Arabia will end up killing civilians in Yemen.
“Ministers need to stop burying their heads in the sand. Overwhelming evidence of its reckless military behaviour in Yemen – including the Coalition’s bombing of hospitals, homes and even school buses – should have meant a halt in arms sales to Saudi Arabia long ago.”
Scottish Labour MP and Shadow Scotland Minister, Paul Sweeney, said: “It is increasingly clear the UK government views lives in Yemen as expendable. I intend to raise further questions of ministers in parliament.”
Ross Greer MSP, international relations spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “That the overwhelming majority of their suspected crimes are not even being investigated has not slowed the UK government down in continuing the supply of arms, as well as logistical and political support for the Saudi regime.
“It’s time the arms sales end, the political support ceases and the sanctions begin. Otherwise their rhetoric around human rights will again be revealed as nothing more than appalling hypocrisy.”
Kristine Beckerle of Human Rights Watch said: “The UK claiming arms can still be shipped off to Saudi Arabia without a clear risk they will be used unlawfully in Yemen is akin to burying one’s head in the sand. The UN, human rights groups and Yemeni activists have researched, documented and reported on scores of apparently unlawful coalition attacks on markets, hospitals and homes, some likely war crimes, many carried out with Western weapons.
“If the UK really wants to use its leverage to mitigate civilian harm in Yemen, it should join the ever growing list of states holding up weapons sales.”
Human Rights Watch has analysed the work of the coalition’s investigative body over the last two years, she added. “It became very clear very quickly that, two years after the body was created, it still wasn’t meeting international standards. Given their failings, the coalition’s investigations certainly do not serve as an adequate assurance for states like the UK that hope to keep exporting weapons.”
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “The MoD’s data is not just a collection of numbers on a spreadsheet. These are real attacks, and have killed real people. The ongoing process clearly isn’t good enough, and is being used to whitewash the crimes and abuses of the Saudi-led coalition.”
Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s Yemen country director, said: “The JIAT has consistently failed to meet international standards regarding transparency, impartiality and independence. It is effectively investigating itself and in the majority of cases ends up largely absolving itself of any responsibility or wrongdoing.”
The Department for International Trade said: “The government takes its export responsibilities very seriously operating one of the most robust export control regimes in the world. Risks around human rights abuses are a key part of our licensing assessment and the government will not license the export of items where to do so would be inconsistent with any provision of the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria.”
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Post on 18 November 2018.