Dear Foreign Secretary,
I am writing to you regarding British government policy towards the war in Yemen and in response to a letter on this same issue that you sent to Stephen Twigg MP, the Chair of the International Development Select Committee. Although this was sent on April 6, it was only posted on-line by the Committee on April 28. Last week, on April 27, four government ministers, including Tobias Ellwood from the Foreign Office, also appeared before the parliamentary committee on arms export control (CAEC) as part of their inquiry into British arms exports and the war in Yemen. Taken together, your letter and their testimony provide the fullest statement to date of the British government’s analysis and policy towards the Yemen conflict.
Drawing on our own field research in Yemen and the best-available information from other credible sources, Human Rights Watch contests several of the claims made by you and your Ministerial colleagues about the conduct of the Saudi-led coalition. Some of the specific claims would appear to be inaccurate; others are seriously misleading. This is not a statement that we make lightly. In this letter, I will illustrate why we have reached this conclusion.
Although the British government continues to deny it, there is overwhelming evidence that the Saudi Arabian-led coalition that you support, including through the supply of £3 billion worth of military weapons and material last year, has conducted strikes in Yemen that have violated the laws of war, including possible war crimes. Human Rights Watch’s own research has specifically identified 43 unlawful strikes by the coalition. At least 670 civilians were killed by these strikes. Human Rights Watch has also identified a further 15 attacks by the coalition involving internationally banned cluster munitions. Amnesty International has identified a further 32 unlawful strikes by the coalition. The United Nations Panel of Experts report, released in January, identified 119 sorties by the Saudi-led coalition which it found to be violations of the laws of war. The Panel concluded that: “the coalition has conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, including camps for internally displaced people and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure”.
While you have not said this explicitly, the British Government’s position implies that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN Panel of Experts have got it wrong in every single case. This is an extraordinary claim, given that our work across the world is regularly cited and commended by the British government for its objectivity and rigour. In the third paragraph of your letter to Stephen Twigg, you say that there is a “considered analysis by MoD of all incidents of alleged IHL [international humanitarian law] violations by the Coalition in Yemen that come to its attention”. Since all of the cases identified by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN Panel of Experts have been shared with the FCO (you have had some of this material for over nine months), you appear to be asserting in your letter that each of these cases has been thoroughly investigated by the British government and that the allegations of laws-of-war violations have been dismissed in every instance. But this is not what was said by Ministers before the CAEC. The Defence Minister, Philip Dunne, said it was not for the British government to make conclusions about whether individual strikes had violated the laws of war: this was for the Saudis to determine. By contrast, Mr Ellwood said that cases shared with the FCO were investigated, but he did not know or would not say how many incidents had been looked into or what conclusions the British government had reached in these cases. When asked about a specific incident involving a coalition attack on a ceramics factory in September last year, which involved a British-supplied cruise missile, none of the four Ministers before the CAEC could say whether or not this case had been looked into. Can you confirm whether the British government has investigated this incident and what conclusion has been reached?
Given these conflicting statements, can you clarify the British government’s overall position? Have you investigated the incidents that have been shared with you and what have you concluded in each case? If you have only investigated some of the incidents, how many have been investigated to date and when will you conclude your investigations into the remaining cases? Do your assessments involve site visits, as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International investigations do? If not, what are your primary sources of information? To what extent are you relying on material provided by the Saudis, a party to the conflict which has an extremely poor record on accountability for rights abuses?
In your letter to Stephen Twigg you also say that the MoD analysis is informed by imagery (presumably from satellites). This is an interesting statement given that Mr Ellwood has been very critical of the UN Panel of Expert Reports for drawing heavily on information from satellites. Mr Ellwood was specifically asked about the UN report before the CAEC. He said that the FCO was looking at it. You have now had this document for nearly four months. When will you conclude your own analysis of the serious claims made in this report?
Towards the end of your letter to Stephen Twigg, you make five specific claims about the conduct of Saudi Arabia in respect to the Yemen conflict. Let me address each of these in turn.
First, you state that “the Saudi-led coalition are not targeting civilians”. But Human Rights Watch and others have identified many cases in which the Saudi-led coalition has attacked markets, hospitals, clinics, schools, factories and wedding parties, as well as private residences. In many of these cases, the attacks failed to discriminate between civilians and combatants or caused disproportionate civilian harm. In other attacks we found no evident military objective in the vicinity and the attacks may have been deliberately attacking civilians. In either case the attacks amounted to serious violations of the laws of war.
Second, you assert that “Saudi Arabian processes and procedures have been put in place to ensure respect for the principles of IHL”. On January 31, the coalition announced the creation of a committee to promote the coalition’s compliance with the laws of war. However, the military spokesman for the coalition specified that the objective of the committee was not to carry out investigations into alleged violations. Since that time there has been no evident reduction in laws-of-war violations by coalition forces.
Third, you assert that “Saudi Arabia is investigating incidents of concern, including those involving civilian casualties”. But to our knowledge the Saudis have not conducted credible investigations into any of these incidents, acknowledged wrongdoing or held anyone to account for violations. This is the view, for example, of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Following the coalition airstrike on a market on March 16, 2016, in which at least 97 civilians were killed, Zeid condemned both the “failure of the Coalition forces to take effective actions to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, and to publish transparent, independent investigations into those that have already occurred”. He added that: “despite public promises to investigate such incidents, we have yet to see progress in any such investigations”. How many Saudi investigations into incidents are you claiming have been undertaken and concluded, and what are their findings? And what efforts have you taken to encourage the coalition to make the results of these investigations public?
Fourth, you claim that “Saudi Arabia has throughout engaged in constructive dialogue with the UK about both its processes and incidents of concern”. This is not the view of your Ministerial colleague Tobias Ellwood. He said before the CAEC that he had phoned the Saudi Ambassador to complain that Riyadh was taking too long to investigate incidents, the process was “frustratingly slow” and the Saudi response “had been found wanting”, and he suggested that the Saudi government “needed to put its hands up” about any mistakes made.
Fifth, you state that “Saudi Arabia has been and remains genuinely committed to IHL compliance”. This is a remarkable claim given the reality of ongoing, large-scale violations of the laws of war by the Saudis in Yemen that have continued for over a year, and their refusal to acknowledge these violations or properly investigate them.
While Human Rights Watch and the British government clearly differ sharply in our views about the conduct of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, there is one important step that you could take to address concerns about the situation in Yemen and to enhance the prospects for justice and accountability for ordinary Yemenis. That would be to support an international, independent investigation into abuses by all sides to the Yemen conflict. The British government did not back such an investigation when it was proposed by the Dutch government at the September 2015 meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. Given the failure of existing efforts regarding investigations and accountability, I hope that you will now reconsider this position and push for such an initiative. Given that Britain has supported international inquiries in cases such as Syria, Cote D’Ivoire and Sri Lanka, it is hard to see why such a mechanism would not also be appropriate in the case of Yemen.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters. Given the level of media and public interest in this issue, we will post a copy of this letter on our website.
Human Rights Watch