An international law group has submitted new evidence to the UK government alleging that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has covered up evidence of its unlawful airstrikes on civilian targets.
The allegations will put pressure on the UK government as it prepares its response to a court order directing it to reconsider all existing British government licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.
In June the UK court of appeal said the previous method of granting new licences, largely depending on assurances of the Saudi government, was inadequate. The government is expected to provide its response next month in a move with big ramifications for future UK-Saudi relations.
A 288-page report submitted to the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, by the Global Legal Action Network and UK law firm Bindmans contains witness testimony as well as crater and bomb-fragment analysis from scores of strikes carried out by the coalition. It is the most comprehensive independent analysis of the Saudi bombing campaign compiled so far.
The report says the attacks appear to violate international humanitarian law by “targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure”.
The evidence was largely compiled by Mwatana, an independent Yemeni human rights group used by the UN to collect evidence in Yemen. In many cases, its evidence, gathered very soon after Saudi bomb strikes, directly contradicts the post-strike investigations conducted by the Saudi-led coalition.
Mwatana, seen as impartial by the UN, has field researchers operating in 21 out of Yemen’s 22 governorates.
The evidence collated in the report was obtained by Arron Merat, a researcher for the Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle. It is also being submitted to the Commons committee on arms export controls.
“This evidence shows not only that Riyadh is targeting Yemeni civilians but that it is covering them up with whitewash ‘investigations’,” Merat said.
“What’s worse is that the British government says that it bases its decisions on whether or not to approve arms sales to Saudi Arabia on information provided to it by Saudi Arabia.”
The appeal court ruling on 20 June requires the Department for International Trade to review all extant export licences for arms that could be used in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, checking against past allegations of alleged civilian attacks.
The appeal court ruled the government had unlawfully approved weapons transfers to the coalition by not formally assessing the record of alleged violations of international humanitarian law.
Under British law, it is illegal for the government to licence arms exports if there is a “clear risk” that they might be used to deliberately or recklessly kill civilians.
UK ministers have admitted in court filings they did not undertake any independent analysis, but had relied upon the ad hoc reports from the coalition’s own Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT).
Mwatana looked at more than 400 bombing incidents, and the GLAN/Bindmans report highlights 16 documented instances where evidence of an attack compiled by Mwatana was denied. In a further four instances, the report says JIAT claimed the attacks were justifiable assaults on military targets where on-the-ground evidence suggested otherwise.
The report says JIAT falsely denies responsibility for many attacks, including a 21 September 2016 attack on a funeral in Hodeidah city, which killed 23 people, including five children. The report includes photographs of the tail fins from guided missiles and a missile fragment which has been identified as coming from a US-made GBU-16 bomb. Only the coalition has the capacity to deliver such munitions.
“The explosion was powerful, and we were shaken around as if we were dummies,” a witness to the attack told Mwatana. “I had never imagined that our neighbourhood would be bombed.”
Similarly, JIAT also denied an attack on a market at the al-Khoukha roundabout in Hodeidah governorate on 10 March 2017, which killed 21 civilians including three children. A witness interviewed by Mwatana said that the market was “full of people” and that nobody was afraid when the bombing of the nearby military camp (about 200 metres away) started, because it was so frequently bombed.
JIAT also concluded no airstrike took place on in the Unesco-protected al-Feleihi district of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, on 18 September 2015. New evidence filed by Bindmans and Mwatana includes pieces of bomb fragmentation that have been identified as coming from an air-delivered explosive.
GLAN’s director Gearóid Ó Cuinn said: “The UK government can either rely on discredited Saudi assurances or listen to those who have documented painstakingly the constant civilian deaths caused by coalition airstrikes.”
Saudi Arabia has accused the Houthi rebels it has been fighting in Yemen of using civilian buildings to hide from airstrikes, but even if this were correct international law requires such strikes to be proportionate and justified by the high military value of the identified target.
Radhya Almutawakel, the chair of Mwatana for Human Rights, said: “The UK should have stopped selling arms to the Saudi coalition a long time ago. We hope this evidence helps them finally make the right decision”.
Further evidence of alleged violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition are expected to be published later this month by the open-source investigators Bellingcat.