Outrage after UK govt admits training Saudi pilots despite Yemen war crimes allegations

The UK is still training the Saudi Air Force despite growing evidence of the Saudi-led coalition’s crimes against civilians in Yemen, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon admitted, replying to an MP’s question. The statement outraged the opposition.

Fallon was responding to the written questions asked by Stephen Doughty, Labor MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, on the UK involvement in the Yemen military intervention, when he admitted that “UK has provided training to the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) both in the UK and in Saudi Arabia,” in particular, to “improve their targeting processes” and ensure its better compliance with international law. 

At the same time, Fallon denied that UK military has been involved in decision-making process in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, saying that UK “has not provided training on political authorization of military operations.” 

The revelation of the broader UK role in the controversial bombing campaign run by Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since March 2015, caused a sharp reaction from the UK opposition, with the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman Tom Brake (MP for Carshalton and Wallington), urging the government to “end its complicity in the murderous campaign” in the country torn by the civil war between Houthi Shiite rebels and Saudi-backed Sunni government of the ousted president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

"It is shameful that the UK government is not only arming Saudi pilots, it is training them as well. The indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, in clear breach of international humanitarian law, is now well documented,” The Independent cited Brake as saying. 

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and NGOs have repeatedly called on the UK and US governments to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia amid growing concerns the US and UK-produced weapons could be used in attacks on civilians. The demands to cut arms supplies have become especially vocal after the Human Rights Watch identified the munitions used in the attack on the crowded funeral ceremony in Yemen’s capital Sana’a as US-manufactured “GBU-12 Paveway II 500-pound laser-guided bomb.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) came to the conclusion that the Saudi jets deliberately targeted the funeral, held to commemorate the father of a senior Houthi leader, after interviewing survivors of the tragedy that claimed lives of 140 people and left hundreds injured, calling the bombing a “war crime.”

On October 13, Fallon listed Paveway among other precision-guided weapons that have been supplied by the UK and used by coalition forces in Yemen, while responding to a question by Brake. However, he refused to specify in what manner the weapons were applied. 

“The location and timing of weapons used in Yemen is a matter for the Saudi-led coalition to comment on,” he wrote the day before. 

While the UK pledged to assist in the investigation and has conducted two training session in Saudi Arabia on the course of the investigation of the international law breaches in Yemen, the British government said it has not taken part directly in the investigation, leaving it to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT). However, the HRW cast doubt on the impartiality of the probe, saying that “JIAT has not met international standards for transparency, credibility, and impartiality.” 

Last week, a report by JIAT stated that the strike was carried out by coalition without authorization of commanders, blaming a “party affiliated to the Yemeni Presidency of the General Chief of Staff” of providing a false lead, as it claimed the funeral was a “gathering of armed Houthi rebels” and “insisted that the location be targeted immediately.” 

The coalition subsequently issued an apology, saying the attack “is not in line with the coalition's objectives.”

"The coalition command expresses its regret at this unintentional incident and the ensuing pain for victims’ families," it said in a statement.

According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)’s estimates from October 10, at least 4,125 civilians have been killed in Yemen and over 7,207 injured since the start of the bombing campaign, with the most of the civilian fatalities were due to the actions by the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes.