Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
As many of you know, I used an Opposition Day debate in Parliament yesterday to raise the desperate humanitarian situation and terrible conflict in Yemen. I argued that – to protect the civilian population – we needed an urgent, independent, UN-led inquiry into whether the Saudi-led coalition has violated international humanitarian law in Yemen, both by attacking civilian targets and destroying Yemen’s agricultural sector, thereby worsening the country’s horrendous hunger crisis. I also argued that, until that investigation was complete, the UK’s support for the coalition forces should be suspended. Unfortunately, our motion did not succeed, but we will continue to fight on this issue, and below, I have laid out the arguments in more detail, based on my speech to the House of Commons yesterday.
When we discussed Yemen in Parliament last week, we did so in the hope that the 72-hour ceasefire negotiated by the UN’s envoy could lead to a lasting cessation of hostilities from all sides, and desperately-needed access for humanitarian aid.
Those hopes were almost immediately dashed. And regardless of who was first responsible for breaking that ceasefire, it is the ordinary civilians of Yemen who are paying the price. It is distressing to learn that on top of all the other threats they face from air strikes, cluster bombs, acute malnutrition, and the risk of famine, the Yemeni population now face an epidemic of cholera.
And I believe, wherever anyone stands, on the justification for this conflict, on the UN-mandate for the Saudi-led military action, or on the threat to regional stability caused by the Houthi uprising, we face a situation where the lives of tens of thousands of children – if not hundreds of thousands – are directly at risk, if the conflict carries on in its present form. And none of us can tolerate that.
So, yesterday’s Labour motion was not about the causes of the conflict, and whether it is justified. It was about the grave concerns which many of us on all sides share about the way the conflict is being conducted, and whether those concerns are being taken seriously. It was about the dire consequences of that conflict for the civilian population of Yemen and what is being done to protect them. And, considering all those grave concerns and dire consequences, it was about whether Britain should be continuing to support the Saudi forces leading one side of that conflict.
Last week, I said in Parliament that there had been “thousands of air strikes on civilian targets in Yemen.” In response, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Tobias Ellwood, said: “There are not thousands – that is to mislead the House.” So, let us look at the facts.
In August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published his office’s report on the conflict in Yemen. It said that, between 1st July 2015 to 1st July 2016, 2,067 civilians had been killed in the conflict. And based on careful investigation of each incident, it said 60 per cent of these deaths had been caused by Saudi airstrikes. The report concluded: “In several of the documented attacks, [we were] unable to identify the presence of possible military objectives.”
In September, the independent Yemen Data Project went further. They examined more than 8,600 airstrikes conducted between the start of the conflict and the end of August 2016. They found that 3,158 of these struck civilian sites, while a further 1,882 struck sites of undetermined use. And that was all before the recent, devastating strikes on the wedding party in Al-Wahijah, and most recently, the funeral hall in Sana’a.
So, when I said there have been thousands of air strikes against civilian targets and thousands of civilians killed, I was not certainly not misleading the House of Commons, as Mr Ellwood said. But I would respectfully suggest that someone may be misleading him.
And in terms of how the conflict is being conducted, there is evidence of a further disturbing trend. According to Yemen expert and LSE Professor Martha Mundy, detailed examination of government agricultural statistics has revealed hundreds of cases where farms, livestock, water, infrastructure, food stores, and markets have been targeted by Saudi airstrikes.
Her analysis is that the extent of bombing in rural areas where there is little activity besides farming shows clear evidence that Yemen’s agricultural sector is being deliberately targeted. And whatever the debate about UN mandates, there is clearly no UN mandate for the destruction of Yemen’s agricultural sector, something which if it is deliberate and targeted, represents a clear breach of the Geneva Conventions.
I will give one example, as cited by my friend, the International Development Secretary, Kate Osamor, in the House of Commons last night. According to the UN, on 11 September, in the rebel-held Sa’ada province, coalition air forces attacked and destroyed a drilling rig building a major new clean water well. When local civilians and healthcare workers rushed to the scene to aid those workers who had been injured, the coalition air forces returned and struck the scene again.
In total, 30 civilians were killed and 17 wounded -; most of them in the second strike. It was exactly the kind of ‘double tap’ operation, rightly condemned when practised by the Russians in Aleppo. Is anyone investigating this incident? Has it been condemned by the UK government? Of course not. But I ask them -; as Kate did in the House last night -; at a time when clean water is in desperately short supply in Yemen, at a time when cholera is as much of a threat as famine, what possible justification can there be for the coalition forces attacking the construction of a water well? Let alone killing innocent civilians who came to the scene of that attack?
That brings me to the question of how alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Yemen are being investigated. Over recent months, the UK government’s position has changed from saying it had assessed there had been no violations of IHL to saying that it had made no such assessment, and that it was instead for the Saudi-led coalition to investigate any such incidents.
They are therefore putting their faith entirely in the Saudis’ Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) to give us the truth on these alleged violations. As I said earlier, there have been thousands of documented coalition air strikes on civilian sites in Yemen, and thousands of civilians killed as a result. So we would expect the JIAT at the very least to have published reports on hundreds of these incidents. How many has it actually published?
Nine. Just nine. Less than 0.002 per cent of all the air strikes documented by the Yemen Data Project up to the end of August. And how credible are those reports?
The UN protested that 47 civilians had been killed and 58 injured while celebrating a wedding in Dhamar in October 2015. The JIAT report refused to recognise that this incident had even taken place. The UN protested that in November 2015, four World Food Programme trucks delivering emergency food aid in Hreib had been attacked. The JIAT report blamed the officials in charge of the food convoy.
The UN protested that 73 civilians had been killed and injured in an air strike on a market in Sana’a in February 2016. The JIAT report said there were no “direct attacks on civilians” and “no fault” on the part of coalition forces. The UN protested that another 106 civilians had been killed in a market in Hajjah in March 2016. The JIAT report disputed that they were indeed civilians and found “no proof of fault”.
In only two of the nine incidents it has reported on, and the thousands more it has not, has the JIAT accepted that there was any fault on the part of the Saudi-led coalition: one for the bombing of a residential complex in July 2015; and one for the horrific air strike on the funeral hall in Sana’a this month, which killed more than 140 civilians.
When asked at the weekend about the latter incident, Tobias Ellwood called it: “a deliberate error”. By which I believe he meant that at least one individual within the coalition forces was able deliberately to unleash this terrible attack without the authorisation of the Coalition Command in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
This raises major questions. Experts on the conflict say there are essentially two coalition forces operating in Yemen: one, run out of Riyadh, which carries out pre-planned operations based on strong intelligence under the direction of American and UK advisers; and the other, operating out of Southern Saudi Arabia, which carries out dynamic, reactive operations, often on the basis of sketchy evidence, often without thinking through the so-called ‘collateral damage’, and inevitably, often with significant civilian casualties.
Of course, if it is the case that any coalition forces are acting in a reckless or indiscriminate manner when it comes to air strikes in civilian areas, that would itself be a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law. But Mr Ellwood’s explanation of the Sana’a funeral bombing that it was a “deliberate error” raises the prospect that there has also been intentional targeting of civilians by elements of the coalition forces.
The government cannot tell us -; because they do not know, and there has been no proper investigation -; how many of those thousands of airstrikes against civilian targets in Yemen have also been ‘deliberate errors’. And those MPs who say our support for the Saudi coalition is essential to help limit civilian casualties need to realise there may be significant elements of the coalition forces over whom neither the UK advisers nor Riyadh have any control.
And that brings me to the crucial point of yesterday’s motion: the need for a full, independent, UN-led investigation into all alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law in Yemen. An investigation into all the thousands of attacks on civilian sites, not just nine; and into all the thousands of civilian deaths, not just a few hundred.
We also need to know whether Yemen’s agricultural sector has been deliberately targeted in breach of IHL; we need to know whether elements of the coalition air forces are routinely operating in a reckless and indiscriminate way; we need to know whether this ‘deliberate error’ in Sana’a was a one-off or part of a more systemic problem; and finally from the UK perspective, if there have been violations of IHL, we need to know whether UK-manufactured weapons and plans have been used to commit them.
With all due respect to the individuals who make up the Saudi JIAT, their output to date – whether in terms of volume, speed or content – gives no confidence that they can carry out that kind of comprehensive, let alone independent, investigation.
Instead, it is manifestly clear that we need an independent, UN-led investigation. And it is equally clear to me, and to the majority of Labour MPs, that until that investigation has been concluded, it is right for the UK to suspend its active support of the coalition forces.
That is partly a matter of our own moral protection: we should not be actively continuing to support those forces while their conduct of the war is under investigation. It is partly about the pressure such a decision will place on the coalition forces to avoid further civilian casualties, to engage constructively in peace talks, and to allow full access for humanitarian relief.
And it is finally about what kind of signal we are sending to the rest of the world. When it comes to Syria, MPs from all parties have rightly condemned the bombardment of Eastern Aleppo by Russia and the Assad regime; demanded tougher international action against Russia; dismissed the Russian claims that civilians are not being targeted; and called for those responsible for war crimes to face justice.
We have heard all those things and very strongly too -; from the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May. But do they realise that, when they refuse to condemn Saudi air strikes on civilians; when they say that the Saudis should be left to investigate themselves; when they dismiss reports that thousands of civilians have been killed; when -; in other words -; they say one thing about Russia and Aleppo, and another about Riyadh and Yemen, what the rest of the world hears is hypocrisy and double standards?
But yesterday’s motion gave us the opportunity to send the opposite message to the world; to show that we hold all countries, friend or foe, to the same high standards that we aspire to ourselves; and that, while Saudi Arabia will remain a valued strategic, security and economic ally in the years to come, our support for their forces in Yemen must be suspended until the alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law in that conflict have been fully and independently investigated. And until the children of Yemen have received the humanitarian aid that they so desperately need.
That would have been the right message to send to the rest of the world. That would have reflected what we should stand for as a country. And that is why I was so disgusted that all but one brave Tory MP voted against sending such a message, and disappointed that some of my Labour colleagues abstained from doing so. But the majority of us did, and over the coming months, with your support, we will continue to hold the government to account for its abject betrayal of principle, and its failure to protect the civilian population of Yemen. And above all, we will continue to press for humanitarian relief, and a lasting peace.