Theresa May misled parliament over Yemen UN resolution: Corbyn

#Diplomacy

Accusation comes as UK and Saudi Arabia sign preliminary deal for sale of 48 Typhoon fighter jets

Prime Minister Theresa May greets Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Downing Street on Wednesday (AFP)
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Jamie Merrill, Diplomatic Editor
Last update: 
Saturday 10 March 2018 9:16 UTC
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LONDON - Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused Theresa May of misleading parliament over the legal basis for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, threatening to reignite a bitter political row over UK support for the conflict.

The row comes after the prime minister said the war in Yemen had United Nations backing, and threatens to overshadow the last day of the visit to the UK by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. 

It also came as the UK signed a preliminary deal with Saudi Arabia on Friday for the sale of 48 Typhoon fighter jets, to the dismay of rights campaigners.

In a full-throated defence of the UK's relationship with Riyadh on Wednesday, which came hours before she met the powerful crown prince in Downing Street, May told parliament that Saudi-led intervention was "backed" by the UN Security Council, and "as such" was supported by the UK.

Corbyn responded that UK forces were effectively "colluding" in war crimes by supporting Saudi forces.

It cannot be right, as I told the prime minister on Wednesday, that her government is colluding in what the UN and others say is evidence of war crimes. Germany has suspended arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, and so must the British government. This outrage must end

- Jeremy Corbyn, opposition leader

Now, Corbyn has gone further and attacked May's comments in parliament, saying that she got her facts wrong, amid claims that the UN has not explicitly authorised the use of military force by the Saudi-led coalition under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the document which regulates when states are authorised to use "all military means" to enforce UN resolutions.

Foreign Office officials told MEE on Friday that the prime minister was referring to UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which was passed in 2015 and recognised the Hadi government, while calling for all Yemeni parties to the conflict to "end the use of violence".

However, critics of the Saudi-led bombing campaign say the resolution did not authorise the use of force by the Saudi-led coalition. It merely noted a letter from the president of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Hadi, calling for military intervention.



A cholera epidemic is also sweeping Yemen (AFP)

This remains the Saudi-led coalition's legal justification for the war, but has been questioned by legal experts because Hadi had overstayed his term, resigned once and fled the country, placing the Saudi military action in a "murky legal" position.

Speaking at the Scottish Labour Party conference in Dundee on Friday, Corbyn said: "It cannot be right, as I told the prime minister on Wednesday, that her government is colluding in what the UN and others say is evidence of war crimes. Germany has suspended arms supplies to Saudi Arabia, and so must the British government. This outrage must end.

"Nor is it true, as the prime minister claimed, that the Saudi-led war in Yemen has been authorised by the United Nations Security Council.

"What's needed now is both a ceasefire and a concerted international effort to achieve a negotiated political settlement."

'Stop cuddling up to bin Salman'

Corbyn's intervention came after his shadow minister for peace told MEE earlier on Friday that the prime minister had got her facts wrong over the legal status of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.

Fabian Hamilton MP said: "Theresa May has got it all wrong here. The fact is that UN Resolution 2216 called for an end to the violence in Yemen and certainly did not support Saudi military intervention in the country."

The Labour shadow minister, added: "Instead of cuddling up to the crown prince, it is now time for the prime minister to show some leadership and suspend all British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as their use against civilians in Yemen is a source of shame for Britain."

The Saudi justification for its intervention in Yemen, where at least 5,000 civilians have been killed, rests on the claim that Riyadh is supporting a neighbour in need, which is legal under international law, but some experts say Houthi aggression may not be enough to justify intervention without a specific UN resolution.

Theresa May has got it all wrong here. The fact is that UN Resolution 2216 called for an end to the violence in Yemen, and certainly did not support Saudi military intervention in the country

- Fabian Hamilton, shadow minister for peace

The legal case is far from clear, but Saudi Arabia's justification rests on Hadi invoking Article 51 of the UN Charter, which provides the right to self-defence if a UN member state is attacked.

Some some experts say this is only relevant if Yemen was responding to an external armed attack. Riyadh regards the Houthis, who are based in the north of the country, as Iranian proxies and intervened to check their advance. 

The British prime minister also faced calls on Friday from within her own party over the UN's role in ending the conflict.

Former International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell told MEE: "We need an end to all violence, the lifting of the blockade, inclusive peace talks and full support for the new UN special representative Martin Griffiths. We also need the UN resolution urgently updated to reflect this."



A protest against MBS' visit to London on Wednesday (AFP)

He added: "I hope close engagement with the Saudi crown prince is allowing Britain to make these important points and that we are using our influence to do so."

Support for the UK and UK-backed position at the UN is reportedly weakening, and last month Russia vetoed a UK draft resolution that included a condemnation of Iran for violating the UN arms embargo on the country. This comes amid claims, supported by UN experts, that missiles used by Houthis to fire towards Riyadh came from Iran.

The UN called for a peaceful solution, it did not call for a three year bombardment which has killed thousands of people and destroyed vital infrastructure all across the country

- Andrew Smith, Campaign Against Arms Trade

However, the UN eventually passed a more limited resolution, making no mention of sanctions on Iran for supplying the missiles, amid speculation that Riyadh is likely to reject the UN route to solve the crisis.

The political row in London over the UN's role in Yemen came as bin Salman's visit to London turned to defence and security on Friday with a meeting with British Defence Minister Gavin Williamson in the afternoon. 

The meeting was expected to touch on the most contentious element of his trip: arms sales. 

"The UN called for a peaceful solution, it did not call for a three-year bombardment which has killed thousands of people and destroyed vital infrastructure all across the country," Andrew Smith, spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade told MEE.

He added: "The people of Yemen have had one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world inflicted on them, and Theresa May and her colleagues have been totally complicit in it."

More Typhoon jets on order?

Britain and Saudi Arabian officials set themselves a $90bn trade and investment target for the next decade earlier this week. It came as London looks for new post-Brexit opportunities for its service sector and the crown prince seeks to convince sceptical investors that his country is a modernising place to do business.

Nevertheless, arms remain the main component of UK-Saudi trade and the UK government has approved the export of $6.4bn in weapons since the start of the war in Yemen, despite allegations that Saudi-led forces have committed war crimes.

The meeting between bin Salman and Williamson on Friday is focused on discussions on the sale of up to 48 Typhoon fighter jets made by British firm BAE Systems - a multi-billion dollar deal which has been under discussion for some time.



BAE's Typhoon fighter jet, which Saudi Arabia has signed a new memorandum of intent to purchase (AFP)

It resulted in a memorandum of intent for Saudi Arabia to purchase the jets, a move just short of a confirmed order but a step towards finalising the lucrative transaction. 

The deal, which could be worth as much as $10bn, will be welcomed by BAE Systems, which manufactures the aircraft, as it struggles to keep the aircraft's production line in Lancashire viable.

According to a press release the firm, the memorandum aims "to finalise discussions for the purchase of 48 Typhoon aircraft".

The Typhoon deal was also thought to have been on the agenda when the crown prince travelled to Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, on Thursday night.

"This is a positive step towards agreeing a contract for our valued partner," BAE Systems, said in a statement. "We are committed to supporting the kingdom as it modernises the Saudi Armed Forces and develops key industrial capabilities."

Saudi Arabia already operates more than 70 Typhoon jets. They have been used extensively in the Yemen war, and the deal is likely to spark outrage among rights groups and campaigners.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK's director, said: "Selling more fighter planes to a country leading a military coalition that's already laying waste to homes, hospitals and schools in Yemen, is just adding fuel to a humanitarian fire.

"It's shocking, and shows that the Government hasn't been listening to widespread concern from the British public on this issue during the Crown Prince's controversial visit."

May's office said that during the crown prince's visit she presented bin Salman a family tree showing the Al Saud dynasty. Downing Street said the framed document was originally created by Queen Victoria's consul general in Jeddah in 1880.

That meeting came as the UK and Saudi Arabia signed more than 18 economic deals, thought to worth around $2bn, covering education, banking and pharmaceuticals.

The Brexit dimension

The deals came as a Saudi minister said the UK should look to Saudi Arabia for new trade and investment opportunities after Brexit and not a backward-looking Commonwealth.

"I would like to think that Saudis can be the pivotal link to a new partnership sphere for the UK that is perhaps not positioned in the past, as is the Commonwealth, but forward-looking, looking at the demographics of the Middle East, Africa, and Islamic world to which Saudi Arabia is central," Saudi energy minister, Khalid Al-Falih, told a business conference in London on Thursday.

He added that the UK should regard the kingdom as the dominant force in the Gulf and "your gateway to Africa, one of the next frontiers".

Backed by a PR advertising blitz, the crown prince also met with the chancellor of the exchequer, Phillip Hammond, and a select group of MPs from the Conservative Middle East Council on Thursday.

He also went to Lambeth Palace to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

The Foreign Office declined to comment further on the prime minister's comments when contacted on Friday.