Banned cluster munitions, UN blacklisting and £1bn of explosive weapon sales
By Elizabeth Minor
Saudi-led bombing in Yemen, and the UK
Recent developments and revelations regarding the actions of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen leave the UK government with a number of serious questions to answer about its policies and practice – including regarding its response to evidence of clear harm to civilians living through the conflict in Yemen.
In May, Amnesty International released new documentation showing that UK-manufactured BL-755 cluster munitions had been used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces. Amnesty’s field investigations showed the risk to civilians these weapons pose long after their use – with villagers describing unexploded sub-munitions hanging from trees near their homes – and the deaths, injuries and suffering they cause.
Cluster munitions are prohibited weapons, banned under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) because of the severe harm they cause to civilians both at the time of use and afterwards. Many fail to explode on impact as intended – as is seen in Yemen today. The UK is a past producer and user of cluster munitions. Having participated cautiously in the international process launched by Norway in 2006, the UK eventually reversed its position and agreed to ban all of its cluster munitions when the CCM was adopted in May 2008.
Based on its documentation, Amnesty called on the British Prime Minister to urgently launch an investigation into how UK-manufactured cluster munitions ended up being used in Yemen; take steps to ensure that the coalition destroys its remaining stocks of UK cluster munitions; and give categorical assurances that no UK personnel have been involved in the use of cluster munitions in Yemen, elaborating what was known by whom and when about these activities. A large number of UK personnel work with the Saudi air force, and the UK government has stated that Ministry of Defence staff have reviewed coalition airstrikes.
Two weeks on, an adequate response from the government has not been forthcoming, with ministers instead choosing to seek ways to call Amnesty’s evidence in to doubt. The government has questioned whether the documented cluster bombs were launched during the current war in Yemen – though there is no reason to doubt this. They have stated that on the evidence, they are confident that “no UK-supplied cluster weapons have been used,” though the source for such confidence is unclear – the stated fact that no cluster munitions have been sold by the UK to Saudi Arabia since at least 1999 would not be adequate grounds.
The government has flip-flopped between stating that an investigation would take place and stating that no investigation was possible as the UK was not part of the coalition, noting that the outcome of investigations by Saudi Arabia was instead being awaited. The possibility that UK personnel working with the coalition may be in a position to seek or provide information has not apparently been considered. Also, despite stating complete confidence that no UK personnel have been involved in the use of illegal weapons, the question of what information might have been available on the types and locations of weapons used by the coalition has not been addressed. As the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence Emily Thornberry remarked in parliament, “anyone who read [Amnesty’s] reports will be…rightly concerned about the Minister’s lack of answers.”
The UK government has failed to condemn use of cluster munitions by the coalition in Yemen previously, similarly calling for further confirmation of “allegations”. This has been despite clear evidence from documentation on the ground by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, whose investigations the government has deemed sufficient for comment on other contexts, for example Sudan. The CCM requires states to take steps to discourage the use of cluster munitions. Building stigma around the use of these weapons through condemnation and other action by the CCM’s parties is a crucial and powerful part of this, whether the states using cluster munitions are party to the treaty or not (as is the case with Saudi Arabia). The UK however recently attempted to block the comprehensive condemnation of all cluster bomb use at a treaty meeting of the CCM in 2015, as a result of its reluctance to recognise use by the coalition. This lack of public acknowledgement persisted for a time even after a coalition spokesman told CNN in January that its forces had used one type of cluster munition in Yemen – though UK denial now appears to finally have been abandoned in at least some official statements.
The UK has also continued to sell large quantities of weapons to Saudi Arabia – including £1bn worth of bombs, missiles and rockets during three months in 2015 alone – despite the extensive harm documented in Yemen as a result of the war, including from the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas by the coalition. Last week, the UN blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition for grave violations in its annual report on the protection of children in armed conflict, due to the killing and maiming of children in Yemen by coalition bombing and bombardments (though this listing has subsequently been suspended pending review, following complaint from Saudi Arabia and perhaps other states).
New evidence of the use of banned weapons by the coalition and recognition by the UN of serious violations of the law should give cause to the UK to reconsider its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in particular given its obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty to take a risk-based approach to violations of international law when denying the sale of weapons. In response to the new evidence of cluster bomb use however, the UK has maintained that more information would be needed to change their risk assessment.
Given the now extensive documentation and condemnation of coalition actions in Yemen, this begs the question of what further information is needed. The government should reveal what definition of evidence and standard of proof it is working to – and why, in relation to cluster munition use by the coalition, this appears to be different to that applied for condemning the use of these weapons in other countries. If the government is using endless demands for further confirmation where none is needed to deflect calls for consistency in condemnation – because not offending a country seen as a key ally is considered more important than supporting the application of international law – then an honest admission on this point, as has been given previously in relation to Saudi Arabia, would be welcome.
The government proposed, in answering an urgent question on Amnesty’s report on the use of UK-manufactured cluster munitions, that the call to halt arms sales being made by a number of MPs, as well as advocacy organisations, “would, of course, have no impact on the use of weapons that have already been supplied.” Taking this somewhat disingenuous comment at face value, the UK should indeed be seeking to influence the coalition over the use of weapons in its stockpiles – in particular as the UK has a global leadership role on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, which it has recently inadequately discharged. As well as condemning use and encouraging coalition members to join the CCM, in order to promote the convention’s norms the UK should review its record of sales of cluster bombs to coalition and other nations before the ban came in to effect, and encourage the destruction of these stockpiles because of the unacceptable harm the weapons cause, offering what assistance it can. The UK should recall why it joined the CCM and the reasons it came to see the particular weapons now being used in Yemen as unacceptable, providing technical information and evidence (for example on failure rates of the BL-755) to coalition nations.
The UK government has stated to Parliament that the UK ranks second in the world in humanitarian aid to Yemen (with Saudi Arabia apparently the largest bilateral donor), and that over £1m has recently been committed to support demining efforts and capacity. In the context of the UK’s unwillingness to address the sale and use of the weapons that are causing the gravest harm to civilians, however – including the deaths of de-miners – supporting this crucial assistance to communities after the fact alone is a wholly inadequate response.
Amnesty International’s report on the use of UK-manufactured cluster bombs in Yemen
Amnesty’s rebuttal of UK government’s questioning of their documentation
Evidence submitted by NGOs on UK manufactured arms and harm from explosive weapons in Yemen