Saudis Admit Using Banned UK Cluster Bombs in Yemen, Promise to Stop
December 19, 2016
Rowena Mason and Ewen MacAskill / The Guardian
British Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon was forced to tell the Commons that internationally banned British-made cluster bombs had been dropped by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, prompting MPs and charities to say that the UK should stop supporting the Gulf state's military action. The UK is one of 120 countries to have signed the 2008 Ottawa convention on cluster munitions, banning their use or assistance with their use. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the treaty.
Saudis Dropped British-made
Cluster Bombs in Yemen, Fallon Tells Commons
Rowena Mason and Ewen MacAskill / The Guardian
LONDON (December 20, 2016) -- The defence secretary was forced to tell the Commons that British-made cluster bombs had been dropped by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, prompting MPs and charities to say that the UK should stop supporting the Gulf state's military action.
Sir Michael Fallon said that a "limited number" of the controversial BL755 bombs had been used by Saudi Arabia, shortly after the Gulf state formally admitted it had deployed the weapons in the Yemeni conflict.
Although an international treaty bans the use of cluster bombs, Fallon defended Britain's support for Saudi Arabia and insisted there was no breach of international law because they were used against "legitimate military targets".
The UK is one of 120 countries to have signed the 2008 Ottawa convention on cluster munitions, banning their use or assistance with their use. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the treaty. The munitions pose an indiscriminate risk to civilians because they contain dozens of bomblets that can explode long after they are dropped.
Fallon made the statement to the House of Commons after the Guardian revealed he had known for around a month about a government analysis pointing to Saudi having used the UK-made bombs. Shortly before he spoke, Saudi Arabia made a statement overturning previous denials that it had used the weapons and declaring it would not deploy them again.
The Scottish National party, which has led calls for the UK to come clean about the use of cluster bombs, said it was a "shameful stain on the UK's foreign policy and its relationship with Saudi Arabia, as well as a failure by this government to uphold its legal treaty obligations".
Brendan O'Hara, the SNP defence spokesman, said there were more questions to answer and pressed the defence secretary for an independent inquiry into violations of international law in Yemen. "Theresa May must live up to her pledge to investigate any violations like this," he said.
Earlier, Angus Robertson, the SNP Westminster leader, called on the prime minister to reveal what she knew about the use of the UK-made cluster bombs but she declined to answer.
Several Conservative MPs also brought pressure to bear on the government, although others backed Fallon's defence of the military relationship. Tania Mathias, MP for Twickenham, called on Fallon to commit the UK to help clear bomblets caused by cluster munitions from villages in Yemen.
Julian Lewis, chair of the Commons defence committee, asked Fallon "whether the Saudis have explained why they used these British-supplied weapons, presumably in the knowledge it would cause considerable embarrassment to the British government".
Although there are no UK forces engaged in combat in Yemen, Britain is helping to train Saudi-led forces with targeting and continues to sell arms to the Gulf state despite international concerns about the coalition's compliance with humanitarian law.
Britain had previously accepted Saudi claims that there was no use of UK cluster munitions, although the government promised to seek fresh assurances last May when Amnesty International published evidence from the ground. Since then, ITV News and Sky have released further reports showing UK-made cluster bombs in Yemen.
The prime minister of Yemen's rebel Houthi government has also accused the UK of "war crimes" for supplying arms to the Saudi-led coalition, which is conducting military operations to restore the previous regime overthrown in 2015.
Fallon mounted a defence of the UK's backing for Saudi Arabia and claimed the Gulf nation was now considering signing up to the convention on cluster munitions. "The Saudis believe that in this particular instance they did respect international humanitarian law," he said.
Fallon repeated Saudi Arabia's claims that the bombs were used in a border area and against "legitimate targets" but was unable to say what would happen to the remaining stocks, how many cluster bombs had been used or how many were left.
The shadow international development secretary, Kate Osamor, said she hoped the Saudi Arabia admission would be "used as part of a war crimes case", while Wayne David, the shadow defence minister, said the weapons had a "toxic legacy -- lying on battlefields and threatening civilians, especially children, long after a conflict has ended".
David asked the government to commit to carrying out an examination into whether current policies needed to be changed and said an independent United Nations-led investigation on possible breaches of humanitarian and international law in Yemen was needed.
Labour MP Stephen Doughty questioned why the UK should in future trust anything Saudi Arabia had been saying; it previously denied that UK-made cluster bombs and suggested pictures were the product of manipulation.
Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said it was a "shocking admission that takes the UK's complicity in the bombing of innocent civilians in Yemen to a whole new level".
He added: "It's about time the government ended its involvement in this murderous campaign. Ministers must immediately halt sales of arms to Saudi Arabia and any other regimes that breach international humanitarian law."
Charities and international bodies said the admission increased the case for the UK to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia's role in the war by selling arms and providing military training.
The disclosure by Fallon is likely to increase calls for MPs to preserve the parliamentary watchdog that scrutinises arms exports controls, which is made up of members of four other committees and is under threat of being disbanded.
Ann Clwyd, a Labour member of the watchdog, revealed the foreign affairs committee has withdrawn its membership from the body over a row about a leak relating a report on Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The MP for Cynon Valley said: "I'm a member of the foreign affairs select committee. That committee, as I understand it, and the chairman is over there, has withdrawn from the arms export committee.
"There was considerable pressure, with visits from Saudi Arabian ministers, when we were deciding our report on the Yemen. I think it's right the House should know that. There are pressures going on here. In the past, the arms export committee was quite strong, it revoked 50 licences in the last parliament. It's regrouping was delayed by six months in this parliament, and that I think speaks for itself."
Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, said Fallon's statement was not good enough.
"We need to see a total suspension of all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia that risk fuelling further atrocities in Yemen," she said. "This is a very simple issue. If the Saudi-led coalition can use British-made cluster munitions against Yemeni villages, then we shouldn't be surprised that it can also bomb homes, hospitals, schools and factories in Yemen.
"It's long overdue for the UK to start honouring its international obligation to halt weapons sales where there's a clear risk that those weapons could be used to carry out serious breaches of international humanitarian law."
Mark Goldring, the chief executive of Oxfam GB, said the promise not to use UK-made cluster bombs was a small step but there was a long way to go.
"The government's international credibility is being mangled under the weight of evidence of international humanitarian law violations in Yemen," he said. "It cannot possibly expect to be taken seriously while it continues to ignore the breaches of the rules of war and sell arms that fuel this brutal conflict.
"The mounting civilian casualties in Yemen, the millions forced to flee their homes, the collapse of health care and the economy, all point to the same simple conclusion; it is imperative to end arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia now and bring the warring parties to the negotiating table."
The UK's relationship with Saudi Arabia has come under the spotlight in recent weeks after Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, made critical remarks suggesting the state was engaged in proxy wars against Iran in the Middle East. His position was immediately disowned by No 10, which regards Saudi Arabia as an essential ally.
Fallon was chosen to given the statement despite the fact that arms exports are the policy responsibility of Johnson in the Foreign Office.
The UK and US are supporting the Saudis against the Houthi militia, which is aligned with Iran. The Saudi-led air campaign has devastated huge swaths of rebel-controlled areas, with high civilian casualties. Last week, the US suspended arms sales planned for Saudi Arabia but the UK has refused to follow suit.
The UK government has been prevaricating for months on the issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, its biggest market for weapons sales. It also has a military team in place at Saudi headquarters giving advice on the air campaign but the Ministry of Defence insisted they did not help with targeting but simply advised on whether targets were not in breach of international law.
The cluster bombs, the use of which was first raised by Amnesty International, had been dropped between December 2015 and January 2016 near al-Khadra in Yemen.
While the UK had stopped manufacturing cluster bombs in 1989 and signed up to a convention in 2008 not to use them, neither Saudi Arabia nor the US has signed the convention. Since the UK is an ally of both, and the convention says signatories should not aid or abet countries using them, the legal position is unclear.
Andrew Smith, a spokesman for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: "The use of UK cluster bombs by Saudi Arabia is characteristic of a brutal war and a brutal regime. If Saudi forces are prepared to use cluster bombs, then why is the UK continuing to arm and support the regime?
"Once a weapon has left these shores, there's little if any control over where and when it will be used and who it will be used against. The UK must act now to stop the arms sales and to end its complicity in the humanitarian catastrophe that has been unleashed on the Yemeni people."
What Is Happening in Yemen and How Are
Saudi Arabia's Airstrikes Affecting Civilians -- Explainer
Paul Torpey, Pablo Gutiérrez, Glenn Swann and Cath Levett / The Guardian
LONDON (September 16, 2016) -- In March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition began bombing Houthi rebels who had forced Yemen's president into exile. Analysis of a comprehensive, open source data survey of the campaign shows airstrikes have regularly hit civilian, economic and cultural sites. The air campaign has recently intensified after the collapse of a patchy ceasefire
Why is Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen?
In 2014, Houthi rebels captured Yemen's capital, Sana'a. The president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, was left powerless and escaped to Aden after the Houthis attacked his private residence and dissolved parliament.
In March 2015, when a renewed rebel offensive forced Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia, a Saudi-led coalition began bombing what it said were military targets associated with the Houthis and forces loyal to Hadi's predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia regards the Houthis as Iranian proxies and intervened to check their advance, supporting pro-Hadi forces aiming to retake Sana'a.
Where have the air raids targeted?
The Houthis were pushed out of Aden in July 2015 and have lost ground near Marib but their territory has generally not changed during 18 months of bombing
What have the air raids targeted?
Intense periods of bombing during the campaign tend to coincide with specific military and political setbacks for the coalition. The Yemen Data Project database shows that these escalations then increase the number of incidents involving non-military sites.
A missile strike on UAE troops serving with the coalition in Marib in September 2015 was the cue for a major change in tempo, which saw the first bombing of Sana'a's historic old city. Several months followed where air raids involving non-military sites outnumbered those involving military targets
The database lists over 8,600 separate incidents that, according to its methodology, may each involve multiple strikes and aircraft. Each attack's primary target is classified as either military, unknown or one of several non-military categories based on the original or general purpose of a building or place. Incidents involve sites such as school buildings, hospitals, mosques and marketplaces.
A single marketplace in the flashpoint district of Sirwah in Marib governorate has been hit 24 times. The coalition maintains its attacks are targeted only at pro-Houthi forces whom they say use civilian infrastructure for military purposes.
Where have civilians borne the brunt?
In Saada, the coalition declared the whole governorate a military target but data shows air raids hit mostly non-military sites
Yemen's most heavily-bombed region is Saada governorate, the heartland of Zaydi Islam to which the Houthis adhere. In May 2015, the coalition dropped leaflets declaring all of Saada a military target and advising residents to leave. Incidents involving non-military sites in Saada outnumber hits on military targets three to one in the database.
In Taiz, civilians have suffered for the governorate's strategic importance
Large numbers of civilians have died in several high-profile incidents in Taiz, which the Yemen Data Project lists as the governorate with the second highest percentage of attacks involving non-military sites. It straddles the former north-south frontier from Yemen's days as a partitioned state, which the frontlines of the current conflict resemble. The Houthis have support in the governorate but it is not universal. Taiz city has been under Houthi siege.
In September 2015, 135 people died in Taiz governorate when a wedding party was bombed in the village of Wahija, near al-Mukha, and more than 30 died in June this year when airstrikes hit a market in Hayfan during the supposed ceasefire.
Taiz has also seen the largest number of school buildings struck in a single governorate with one site in al-Omary, Dhubab being hit nine times. This is consistent with the Saudi strategy of repeat targeting -- Taiz airport and the docks in al-Mukha have been hit 16 and 18 times respectively.
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