War crimes in Yemen: a shameful day for Britain

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson: if Britain doesn't sell arms to the Saudis other countries will

Britain's parliament yesterday rejected calls for "a full independent UN-led investigation" into alleged war crimes in Yemen and for suspension of British support to the Saudi-led coalition "until it has been determined whether they have been responsible for any such violations".

A motion put forward by the opposition Labour party was defeated by 283 votes to 193 because more than a hundred of the Labour party's own MPs either abstained or failed to turn up for the vote. 

On the other side, a single member of the ruling Conservative party – Chris White – voted in favour of the motion after telling parliament:

"The United Kingdom’s legal obligations stipulate that the government must suspend arms sales if there is a clear risk that there might be a violation of international humanitarian law. I suggest that that criterion has been met, and that arms sales to Saudi Arabia should therefore be suspended ... The default position of the UK government should be not to continue to sell weapons, but to pause until they are satisfied that allegations have been investigated properly."

The Saudi military's apparent disregard for humanitarian law is by no means a new issue: the Americans complained about it in 2010 during the kingdom's previous bombing campaign in Yemen. During the current conflict there has been ample evidence of Saudi warplanes targeting civilians in hospitals, market places, and elsewhere.

The most horrific example so far came on October 8 when Saudi bombing of a funeral in Yemen killed at least 140 people and injured more than 500. The Saudis have since blamed this on flawed intelligence and indiscipline within their armed forces.

The funeral bombing was a "double-tap" attack where a second bomb struck as rescuers moved in after the first explosion. 

Britain's foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has previously described double-tap bombing as "unquestionably a war crime" – but he was referring to Russian attacks in Syria rather than Saudi attacks in Yemen.

The British government's reluctance to acknowledge evidence of war crimes and take a more critical line towards the Saudis is largely a result of the importance it attaches to arms sales. Last year it approved licences for military exports to Saudi Arabia amounting to £2.8 billion and is hoping to expand business with the Arab Gulf states if Britain leaves the EU.

There are similar attitudes among some Labour MPs because of pressure from trade unions whose members work in the weapons industry – which partly explains their absenteeism during yesterday's vote.

Britain has a legal obligation not to grant arms export licences where there is "a clear risk" that items "might be used" in committing serious violations of international humanitarian law. Until now, the government has insisted that in the case of arms sales to Saudi Arabia this test has not been met.

In yesterday's debate, however, foreign secretary Johnson took a different tack, suggesting that British arms sales should continue because if they were suspended other countries would sell them to the Saudis instead:

"We would be vacating a space that would rapidly be filled by other western countries that would happily supply arms with nothing like the same compunctions, criteria or respect for humanitarian law. More importantly, we would, at a stroke, eliminate this country’s positive ability to exercise our moderating diplomatic and political influence on a crisis in which there are massive UK interests at stake."

Whatever "compunctions" Johnson imagines Britain has shown in its lethal trade with Saudi Arabia, the possibility of arms sales by other – supposedly less scrupulous – countries does not absolve Britain from complying with the law.

The honourable 193

Here is a list of MPs who supported yesterday's motion calling for a UN-led investigation into alleged war crimes in Yemen and suspension of British support for the Saudi-led coalition pending an investigation:

Abbott, Ms Diane
Abrahams, Debbie
Ahmed-Sheikh, Ms Tasmina
Anderson, Mr David
Arkless, Richard
Ashworth, Jonathan
Bardell, Hannah
Benn, rh Hilary
Betts, Mr Clive
Black, Mhairi
Blackford, Ian
Blackman, Kirsty
Blomfield, Paul
Boswell, Philip
Brake, rh Tom
Brennan, Kevin
Brock, Deidre
Brown, Alan
Brown, Lyn
Brown, rh Mr Nicholas
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burgon, Richard
Butler, Dawn
Byrne, rh Liam
Cadbury, Ruth
Cameron, Dr Lisa
Campbell, rh Mr Alan
Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair
Champion, Sarah
Chapman, Douglas
Chapman, Jenny
Cherry, Joanna
Cooper, Julie
Cooper, rh Yvette
Corbyn, rh Jeremy
Cowan, Ronnie
Crawley, Angela
Creasy, Stella
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, John
Cunningham, Alex
Cunningham, Mr Jim
Dakin, Nic
Danczuk, Simon
Davies, Geraint
Day, Martyn
Debbonaire, Thangam
Donaldson, Stuart Blair
Doughty, Stephen
Dowd, Jim
Dowd, Peter
Dromey, Jack
Durkan, Mark
Edwards, Jonathan
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs Louise
Esterson, Bill
Farrelly, Paul
Fellows, Marion
Ferrier, Margaret
Fletcher, Colleen
Foxcroft, Vicky
Gardiner, Barry
Gethins, Stephen
Gibson, Patricia
Glass, Pat
Glindon, Mary
Godsiff, Mr Roger
Goodman, Helen
Grady, Patrick
Grant, Peter
Gray, Neil
Green, Kate
Greenwood, Lilian
Greenwood, Margaret
Haigh, Louise
Hamilton, Fabian
Hanson, rh Mr David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Carolyn
Hayes, Helen
Hayman, Sue
Healey, rh John
Hendry, Drew
Hepburn, Mr Stephen
Hodgson, Mrs Sharon
Hollern, Kate
Hopkins, Kelvin
Hosie, Stewart
Huq, Dr Rupa
Hussain, Imran
Johnson, rh Alan
Jones, Gerald
Kane, Mike
Keeley, Barbara
Kerevan, George
Lavery, Ian
Law, Chris
Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma
Long Bailey, Rebecca
Lucas, Caroline
Lucas, Ian C.
Lynch, Holly
MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan
Madders, Justin
Mahmood, Mr Khalid
Malhotra, Seema
Marsden, Gordon
Maskell, Rachael
Matheson, Christian
Mc Nally, John
McCabe, Steve
McCaig, Callum
McCarthy, Kerry
McDonald, Andy
McDonald, Stuart C.
McDonnell, rh John
McGarry, Natalie
McInnes, Liz
McMahon, Jim
Meale, Sir Alan
Mearns, Ian
Miliband, rh Edward
Monaghan, Carol
Monaghan, Dr Paul
Morden, Jessica
Mulholland, Greg
Mullin, Roger
Nandy, Lisa
Newlands, Gavin
Nicolson, John
O'Hara, Brendan
Osamor, Kate
Oswald, Kirsten
Owen, Albert
Paterson, Steven
Pearce, Teresa
Pennycook, Matthew
Phillips, Jess
Pound, Stephen
Pugh, John
Reed, Mr Steve
Rees, Christina
Reynolds, Jonathan
Rimmer, Marie
Ritchie, Ms Margaret
Robertson, rh Angus
Rotheram, Steve
Salmond, rh Alex
Saville Roberts, Liz
Shah, Naz
Sharma, Mr Virendra
Sheppard, Tommy
Sherriff, Paula
Siddiq, Tulip
Skinner, Mr Dennis
Slaughter, Andy
Smith, rh Mr Andrew
Smith, Cat
Smith, Jeff
Smith, Nick
Smith, Owen
Smyth, Karin
Starmer, Keir
Stephens, Chris
Stevens, Jo
Tami, Mark
Thewliss, Alison
Thomas-Symonds, Nick
Thompson, Owen
Thomson, Michelle
Thornberry, Emily
Timms, rh Stephen
Trickett, Jon
Turner, Karl
Twigg, Derek
Twigg, Stephen
Umunna, Mr Chuka
Vaz, Valerie
West, Catherine
White, Chris
Whiteford, Dr Eilidh
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Whitford, Dr Philippa
Williams, Hywel
Williams, Mr Mark
Wilson, Corri
Winnick, Mr David
Winterton, rh Dame Rosie
Wishart, Pete
Wright, Mr Iain
Zeichner, Daniel