The UK’s Middle East minister has accused politicians of basing their criticism of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia on “hearsay and photographs” during a heated debate in the House of Commons on Thursday.
Tobias Ellwood, a member of the ruling Conservative Party, was responding to an urgent question over the use of UK-made weapons in the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, which has left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced.
Ellwood was questioned by Labour MP Hilary Benn on Thursday, a day after the UN called for an international inquiry to investigate the months-long campaign to push back the Houthis, who swept through the country in 2014 and are also accused of committing grave human rights violations, including using food as a weapon of war.
The leaked 51-page report, prepared by a UN panel of experts on Yemen and sent to the Security Council last week, found that 119 sorties carried out by the Saudi-led coalition violated international humanitarian law.
Ellwood confirmed that the UK government is aware that UK-made equipment is being used in the Yemen campaign, and said there were “many sorties which there are questions over”.
However, he insisted that these be placed in the context of “thousands” of sorties that have been carried out since the bombing began in March 2015.
Asked whether he was aware of reports documenting violations of international law in Yemen, Ellwood said that while he had received a copy of the UN report, he has not had time to read it.
He also said that although he had a copy of the report in his possession, it had not been “officially received” by his office as it was leaked.
“Yes, of course I’ve got it,” Ellwood said. “But I haven’t received it… The actual people who wrote this report didn’t visit Yemen. They are basing this on satellite technology.
“I commit myself to sit down with the Saudi Arabians to make sure they go through this with a fine-tooth comb,” he said, calling on the kingdom to conduct the “necessary investigations” to confirm whether their aircraft were involved in violations.
The Saudi-led coalition has been accused by international human rights groups of conducting multiple mass casualty airstrikes that have hit civilians, including at refugee camps, wedding parties and factories.
However, the kingdom has denied involvement in the deaths, often stating that its aircraft were not active in the areas in question at the time.
Calling for Saudi Arabia to probe its own conduct in Yemen, Ellwood accused UK politicians who demand an immediate ban on arms sales to the kingdom of a “knee-jerk reaction”.
“We need to see evidence…to make firm judgements rather than [basing them] on hearsay and, indeed, photographs.”
The UK sold more than $1.4bn worth of bombs to Saudi Arabia in the three months between July and September 2015, while the war in Yemen continued to rage.
Since the current government came to power in 2010, Riyadh has purchased over $8bn of arms from the UK, and politicians from the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties on Thursday noted the “thousands” of highly-skilled UK jobs that depend on the arms export industry.