Boris v Theresa May? PM & FM at odds over arms sales to Saudi, Yemen war crimes

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) and Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) meet ahead of G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. © Narendra Shresta
British Prime Minister Theresa May and her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, appear to be split over Saudi Arabia’s alleged war crimes in Yemen, where the Gulf kingdom is intervening in a deadly civil war.

The PM raised concerns over the Yemen conflict with Saudi Arabian diplomats at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China.

However, May’s intervention is at odds with the foreign secretary, who said on Monday there is no evidence of war crimes in Yemen and so Britain can legally continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes in Yemen in late March 2015 and imposed an aerial and naval blockade on the crisis-ridden state. The Saudi-led coalition had hoped to influence the outcome of Yemen’s bloody civil war.

The military campaign, which has caused large-scale bloodshed and human suffering, targeted Yemen’s Houthi population and a number of allied insurgent groups who support former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The intervention has been described as a humanitarian catastrophe by human rights experts, including key United Nations officials.
By July 2015, the UN had described the humanitarian situation in the war-torn state as a “Level 3” emergency – the highest emergency ranking it ascribes.

Sources told the Independent that May was able to raise human rights issues with the Gulf kingdom because Britain and Saudi Arabia have a “strong relationship.”

The PM’s concern over human rights abuses runs in contrast with her own foreign secretary, however, who defended Britain’s continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia in a written statement to Parliament on Monday.

“The key test for our continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia in relation to [international humanitarian law] is whether there is a clear risk that those weapons might be used in a commission of a serious violation of IHL,” Johnson said.

Having regard to all the information available to us, we assess that this test has not been met.”

The foreign secretary added the Saudi Arabian military itself is in the best position to investigate allegations of war crimes.

Britain has been accused of fueling conflicts across the Middle East through its lucrative arms sales to various regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Turkmenistan and the UAE.

An investigation by the Independent found Britain is now the second biggest arms dealer in the world. It has sold weapons to 22 of the 30 countries on the UK’s own human rights watch list.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said: “These terrible figures expose the hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy.

The government is always telling us that it acts to promote human rights and democracy, but it is arming and supporting some of the most repressive regimes in the world.”