Internal emails obtained by MEMO show that British diplomats appear to be nervous about the quality of the investigation being carried out by the Saudi-led coalition into alleged war crimes by its forces in Yemen. The news comes as NGOs claim that Britain is set to obstruct an attempt to launch an independent investigation this Thursday at the UN about the allegations.
The emails show that following the attendance of British officials at a conference organised by the Joint Incident Assessments Team (JIAT), the UK-trained group tasked by the Saudi-led coalition with investigating the alleged war crimes, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official warned colleagues that the findings "will be controversial and no doubt disputed."
The JIAT meeting was hosted by its most senior official, Mansour Al-Mansour. MEMO has revealed previously how Mansour sentenced doctors, politicians and torture survivors to prison during the 2011 Arab Spring in his capacity as a military prosecutor in Bahrain. His findings on Yemen have largely exonerated the Saudis and their coalition partners of wrongdoing, but groups including Médecins Sans Frontières, which say that they were targeted by the coalition, dispute this strongly.
In January 2017, the inclusion of Al-Mansour in JIAT was questioned by the Liberal Democrats and Labour in a Westminster parliamentary debate on Yemen.
One of Al-Mansour's investigations probed the bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières mobile clinic in Taiz. In August 2016, JIAT blamed the attack on the NGO, saying, "It is necessary to keep the mobile clinic away from military targets so as not to be subjected to any incidental effects" before praising "the soundness of the measures taken by the Coalition Forces in accordance with… international laws."
In contrast, MSF's own Incident Report found that the tented clinic had actually been set up "in an empty field in a residential neighbourhood where many internally displaced people had gathered… There were no obvious potential military targets nearby."
The newly-obtained emails also show that FCO staff were notified about MEMO's findings on Al-Mansour in an email sent to Whitehall staff by one of their communications agencies, Gorkana, with a circular sent to all FCO officials working in the Gulf. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request before sharing them with MEMO.
Although government bodies are supposed to respond to Freedom of Information requests within twenty working days, the FCO took five months to answer this one, said BIRD. According to the FCO, there were concerns that releasing the information "could potentially damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia."
In 2016, Britain's Ministry of Defence provided training to the Saudi Coalition's JIAT, further calling into question its independence.
There have been two previous attempts to establish an independent UN probe, but they have failed on both occasions. Last year, Britain blocked the European Union's efforts. Despite mounting civilian casualties, which the UN blames primarily on the Saudi-led bombing campaign, Britain looks set to continue obstructing calls for a UN probe this week when the issue is discussed by the Human Rights Council.
"Yemeni civilians are suffering on an unprecedented scale," said David Mepham, UK director of Human Rights Watch, accusing the British government of placating critics "with the laughable notion that the Saudi-led coalition, which is bombing homes, schools and hospitals, can investigate itself." The coalition, he explained, has proven time and again that it is far more interested in whitewashing its own abuses — or using its financial clout to bully others into doing so — than in credibly investigating the deaths of civilians it has killed. "The UK government," he added, "still has time to change course, and should support efforts to create an impartial, international inquiry into abuses by all sides to the Yemen conflict at the United Nations Human Rights Council this week."
The Labour Party has barred Saudi Arabia from attending its annual conference which opened in Brighton at the weekend. Leader Jeremy Corbyn has called on the British government to stop selling arms to the Kingdom.
Condemnation of British support by Human Rights Watch, as well as the Bahrain Institute for Human Rights, was echoed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, who earlier this month said, "The reticence of the international community in demanding justice for the victims of the conflict in Yemen is shameful."
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the Director of Advocacy at BIRD, told MEMO that the email chain "not only smashes the UK government's credibility in Yemen, but also its credibility when it calls for accountability elsewhere."
Last week, Britain's Ministry of Defence announced a new Military and Security Cooperation Agreement with Saudi Arabia. Britain has sold nearly £6 billion worth of arms to the Gulf Kingdom since the start of its involvement in the Yemen war in March 2015.
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