Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
Today, we held another debate in the House of Commons on the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. I used the opportunity to challenge the government, asking why they are relying on the Saudi authorities, and a notorious Bahraini judge, to investigate themselves over allegations of war crimes, rather than backing an independent, UN-led inquiry. I also asked them why the UK’s draft UN resolution to stop the conflict has been sitting in limbo for the last three months, apparently at the insistence of Saudi Arabia, while hundreds of thousands of children in Yemen are being left to starve. I was unable to deliver my full-length speech in the House due to time constraints at the end of the debate, but I thought I would share it with you. As always, please let me have your thoughts.
Let me start by echoing everything that my Honourable Friend, the Member for Liverpool West Derby, and members on all sides of the House have said about the humanitarian situation in Yemen today, and about the importance of ending the conflict so that we can get food, water and medical supplies to all the millions in such desperate need.
Let me also make clear at the outset that we agree with the principles behind UN Resolution 2216. We all want to see Yemen restored to the control of a legitimate, stable and democratic government capable of peacefully leading the whole country. And we all want to see the Houthi rebels held to account, both for their illegal coup, and for the atrocities that they have committed during this war.
But with all due respect to those on the government benches, and some of those on my own, it is possible to agree with the principles of the UN Resolution while disagreeing profoundly with the way it is now being enforced, with the way that alleged violations of international law are being investigated, and with the abject failure of the British government to bring this war to an end.
So I am going to focus on the two issues at the heart of today’s motion: first, the need for an independent investigation into breaches of international humanitarian law; and second, on the long-overdue role Britain must play in ending the conflict, and enabling unhindered access for humanitarian aid.
Let me turn first to the investigation of alleged war crimes, by which, we mean the deliberate targeting of civilians; indiscriminate attacks; or the deliberate targeting of medical facilities and the means of food production, no matter who is responsible, the Saudi-led coalition or the Houthis.
On these benches, we have said many times, just as the UN has, and all leading human rights groups, and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, that the only way to ensure the comprehensive, thorough and impartial investigation of those alleged crimes is to commission an independent, UN-led enquiry.
In response to our calls, the government has been consistent in saying that the Saudi-led coalition must be left to investigate themselves. So let’s see how that is going.
In October, I revealed at this despatch box that, of the 3,158 documented air strikes against civilian targets up to the end of August 2016, the coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team had issued reports on just nine: a pathetic 0.002 per cent. And how many more reports have they completed since then? Four, Madam Deputy Speaker, just four.
Of those thirteen total ‘investigations’, and I use the word advisedly, there are just three where the JIAT found any culpability on behalf of the coalition: two it said were innocent mistakes based on bad intelligence; the other -; the bombing of the funeral hall in Sana’a – was, as Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood memorably described it, “a deliberate error”.
In the other 10 cases, comprising 241 civilian deaths, and the bombing of four food trucks, three medical facilities, one school, one wedding, one cattle market, one food market, and one food factory, the JIAT found -; surprise-surprise -; that the coalition had done nothing wrong. And in four of the cases, even more surprisingly for the grieving mothers of the 241 dead civilians, they said no attacks had actually taken place.
This is the investigatory body into which the government has put all its faith to ensure that the Coalition is not violating international law.
There are many reasons for the manifest failure of the JIAT and here is one. Let’s look at the man in charge: Colonel Mansour Al-Mansour, or as he is known to some in Bahrain, “The Butcher”. In 2011, with Bahrain’s popular uprising brutally suppressed, and martial law in place, Colonel Al-Mansour was the military lawyer who presided over the kangaroo court set up to jail and execute the protesters, activists, and opposition politicians.
But he didn’t stop there. He tried teachers, doctors and religious clerics, journalists and human rights campaigners, anyone seen as a threat to the Bahrain regime. Hundreds were jailed or sentenced to death under his orders. When they protested that they’d been tortured into confessions, he ordered the police to shut them up.
And yet this is the man in whom the government has put all its faith to investigate alleged war crimes in Yemen, and tell us whether Britain is justified to keep selling Saudi Arabia arms. The government is either being extremely naïve, or extremely negligent. But either way, it is just not good enough.
And I thought it was very telling when Mr Ellwood said of the Saudi coalition on Tuesday: “It is having to provide reports when it makes mistakes, and it has never done that before. It has no experience of even writing reports.” That much is obvious, given it has only produced 13 in eight months. But what is more telling is his implication that the role of the JIAT is just to identify mistakes. As he went on to say: “We need to ensure that when errors are made, the coalition puts its hand up.”
So contrary to everything the government has claimed, the JIAT is not investigating whether international law has been breached, it is not asking why Yemen’s agricultural infrastructure has been systematically destroyed, it is not assessing whether civilians are being deliberately targeted, or whether the targeting of air strikes is indiscriminate. That, it seems, is all being taken on trust.
All the JIAT is doing is looking at a handful of high-profile incidents, and in one or two cases, saying a mistake was made. And again, that is not good enough. Not good enough as an investigation, and certainly not good enough as a basis for confidence that our arms export laws are not being breached.
Let me turn to the role that Britain must play in bringing the conflict to an end, and again, I want to go back to what Mr Ellwood said on Tuesday. I asked why the UK had not presented its resolution to the UN Security Council, despite having that resolution ready to present since the middle of October three whole months ago.
And the Minister explained: “We will not get a Security Council resolution passed until we get the cessation of hostilities in place.” So, in other words, we must have a cessation of hostilities before the UK will present the resolution.
But if that is the case, why does Clause One of the UK’s draft resolution demand an immediate cessation of hostilities? Why would the very first line of the resolution demand something that was already in place.
Let’s look at what the UK’s ambassador to the UN has said about the resolution. Back in October, Matthew Rycroft said: “We have decided to put forward a draft Security Council resolution on Yemen calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a resumption of the political process”.
In other words, it was the resolution which was designed to be the driving force behind a ceasefire and peace talks, just as it was with Resolution 1860 on Gaza, Resolution 2174 on Libya, and Resolution 2254 on Syria.
Look at what the Ambassador said in November: “The Yemen ceasefire needs to be made sustainable and permanent. The UK will continue to support efforts to that end, including through the use -; if necessary -; of our draft Security Council resolution.”
So again, the Ambassador was clear: the resolution would -; if necessary -; be the driver of the ceasefire. For Mr Ellwood now to claim that we must have the ceasefire before we can have the resolution is -; I will not say ‘disingenuous’ or ‘misleading’ as he said of me on Tuesday, because that would be improper -; but I will just say he is not giving us the full picture.
Because the elephant in the room is that Saudi Arabia does not want us to present that resolution. This is what the Saudi ambassador to the UN said when first asked about the UK’s draft resolution in November, by the Arab newspaper, Asharq Al-Aswat:
He said: “There is a continuous and joint agreement with Britain concerning the draft resolution, and whether there is a need for it or not.” The newspaper goes on to say: “The Saudi Ambassador said the UK draft resolution includes an unnecessary text in addition to having a wrong timing.”
So there we have it in black and white: Saudi Arabia does not sit on the UN Security Council but it has been able to veto the UK’s draft resolution without so much as a discussion. And why has it done so?
Is it Clause Four of the resolution, which calls for “full, transparent and timely investigation” of all alleged war crimes? Given that we know the JIAT’s investigations are neither full, transparent or timely.
Is it Clause Five, which calls on all sides to negotiate a political solution on the basis of the UN’s proposed Road Map? Given that President Hadi has described that Road Map as “the betrayal of the blood of martyrs”.
Or is it because -; just like Assad in Syria -; Saudi Arabia sees no value in agreeing a ceasefire, or negotiating a peace, when it believes the rebellion can still be crushed, no matter how long it takes, no matter the civilian casualties, no matter the humanitarian cost, and because, no matter what they do, they know this Tory government will remain on their side.
We cannot know the truth, because -; as with so much else -; the government will not tell us the truth. The Saudis speak of their “continuous and joint agreement with Britain” on whether the UN resolution is needed. But has that agreement ever been disclosed to this House? Has it ever been debated? Of course it hasn’t.
Madam Deputy Speaker, the Foreign Secretary was right last month to call Yemen a “proxy war”. He was right to criticise Saudi Arabia’s “puppeteering”. And he was right to refuse when No.10 cravenly told him to apologise.
But while I am happy to applaud his honesty, it just makes his hypocrisy all the more disappointing. If he knows what Saudi Arabia are really doing in Yemen, he should follow America’s lead and stop selling them arms. If he is worried about the scale of civilian casualties, he should back a proper, independent, UN-led investigation to see whether international laws have been broken.
And if he wants to bring the conflict to an end, and get the children of Yemen the humanitarian aid they need, he should have the guts to stand up to Saudi Arabia, and tell them that -; unless they agree an immediate ceasefire -; and commit to the UN Road Map, he will present the UK’s resolution to the UN next Monday, and force them to do so.
For the last two years, the government have offered us nothing on Yemen except disinformation, inaction, and shabby hypocrisy. From cluster bombs to violations of international law, they keep changing the story, turning a blind eye here and a deaf ear there.
But that is no longer good enough. Relying on the JIAT and Colonel Al-Mansour is no longer good enough. Delaying tactics on the draft resolution are no longer good enough. Letting this war continue while the children of Yemen starve is no longer good enough. Indeed, it is immoral.
Instead, it is time for the government to start doing the decent thing: present the draft UN resolution; end the conflict; demand an independent investigation of war crimes; and send a signal of intent to the Saudis today by supporting this backbench motion.