Human rights violations are taking place in Yemen on a “large scale”, the Foreign Office (FCO) has said amid continuing criticism that UK arms are fuelling the country’s bloody civil war.
In its annual review of human rights around the world, the FCO said the conflict has had a “significant impact” on the civilian population, with the International Committee of the Red Cross warning the suffering had reached “unprecedented levels”.
The report comes as MPs on the Committees on Arms Export Controls are holding an inquiry into the use of UK-made weapons by the Royal Saudi Air Force which is supporting the Yemeni government in its struggle with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Campaigners demanding Britain suspends arms sales to Saudi Arabia say thousands of civilians have been killed in Saudi air strikes.
In its report, the FCO noted that the overall human rights situation in Yemen “significantly deteriorated” over the course of 2015.
“Human rights violations and abuses in Yemen took place on a large scale, including: the use of child soldiers; attacks on journalists and human rights defenders; arbitrary detentions; destruction of civilian infrastructure; damage to Yemen’s cultural heritage; and the lack of progress on improving the rights of women,” it said. “Internal conflict further impeded the legitimate Yemeni authorities and undermined the protection of universal rights.
“Throughout 2015, we raised the importance of respect for human rights law with the coalition, the government of Yemen, and the Houthis. The UK has emphasised repeatedly to all parties, throughout the conflict, the importance of protecting civilians.”
The report also noted the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia “remained of concern”, with a rise in the number of executions from 90 in 2014 to 158 last year.
While Britain, together with the EU, had been “vocal” in its opposition to the use of the death penalty while raising the cases of human rights activists faced with execution or flogging with the Saudi authorities.
“We continue to believe that raising issues in private is the most effective way of effecting change in this context,” the report said.
Saudi Arabia and Yemen are among 30 “human rights priority countries” listed in the report which also includes China, which has been heavily wooed by the Government in the hope of building trade and investment.
The report said Britain had consistently raised human rights concerns with Beijing “including at the highest levels” and that UK “co-operation” was assessed to have led to a reduction in the numbers of crimes subject to the death penalty as well as greater legal protection for the victims of domestic violence and rape.
It added however: “Barriers to achieving our aims included China’s reluctance to accept meetings to discuss sensitive issues. Requests for human rights monitoring visits to Tibet were refused.”
Others on the list include Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – which have all been subject to UK military intervention – as well as Iran, which has recently signed an international agreement to limit its nuclear programme, and Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The other are Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burma, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Maldives, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.