MPs on Britain’s influential committee on arms export controls are divided over plans that would recommend suspending UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia over alleged breaches of international law in Yemen.
A concerted attempt has been mounted to water down a draft report that said it seemed inevitable that the alleged breaches by the Saudi-led coalition had involved arms supplied by the UK, and that this would mean Britain was in violation of its legal obligations.
The draft had said: “The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia.”
But the staunchly pro-defence Labour MP John Spellar, with support from some Conservative committee members including the chair of the foreign affairs select committee Crispin Blunt, has tabled more than 130 amendments to change the report, including removing the call for a suspension of arms sales.
The number of amendments underlines the sensitivity of the issue of UK-Saudi relations at Westminster, the importance of the Gulf to the UK defence industry and the concern that Britain, for a variety of security reasons, is too ready to take Saudi assurances about how it is conducting a difficult civil war in Yemen.
In a written statement earlier this week, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, sought to preempt the committee by asserting the UK would continue to export weapons to Saudi Arabia, claiming the “key test” of a serious risk of breach of international humanitarian law had not been met.
Amendments to the draft report tabled on Wednesday by Chris White, the Conservative chair of the committee, proposed condemning the government for “its failure to be clear about the basis [on which] it had come to the view that Saudi [Arabia] had not been in breach of international humanitarian law”.
He pointed out that the government had abandoned its previous assurance that there had been no breach into a more general reassurance that there was no serious risk of a breach.
White argued that corrections made just before the summer recess were “significant changes” to earlier evidence from ministers and suggested that government assessments had not taken place despite assurances to the opposite.
The White amendment amounts to an allegation that the defence minister unintentionally or otherwise misled the committee and says: “These changes … damage confidence in cross-Whitehall cooperation and competence.”
White also suggested that there was a conflict between the findings of the Saudi-led inquiry and reports by the UN high commissioner for human rights.
On Wednesday, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, defended his country’s conduct in Yemen, denying the coalition ever intended to hit hospitals. “What interest do we have in killing Yemeni children?” he said.
But, at a lengthy private session with MPs, he admitted that Riyadh had been “behind the eight ball” in defending its role in Yemen. Jubeir also insisted the Saudis did not have the equipment to launch the kind of cluster munitions human rights groups say have been found in Yemen.
He also promised that further internal reports would be published on individual allegations that coalition forces had bombed inappropriate targets such as schools, hospitals or civilian areas. He insisted the Iranian-backed Houthis had “[bombed] hospitals and schools as weapons depots”.
A report from an internal Saudi investigation into eight incidents in Yemen was published on 4 August, largely defending the bombings on the basis that the Saudis had received credible intelligence that Houthi forces were in the area. In one case, Riyadh offered compensation to the victims.
The UN has criticised the Saudi-led coalition for strikes on weddings, markets, schools and hospitals that did not appear to qualify as military targets.
Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia, backed by its Sunni Arab allies, the US and Britain, has been launching airstrikes in Yemen, its neighbour, to reinstate the president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and counter-advances by Houthi rebels. Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict.
Houthi fighters, who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, control the capital, Sana’a, and the western part of Yemen, and are allied with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who led the country from 1990 to 2012.