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Saudi complying with human rights law in Yemen: UK foreign secretary

There is 'no clear risk' that Saudi is using UK arms to commit rights violations, Philip Hammond tells MP in letter
UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond says Saudi Arabia is 'genuinely committed' to international humanitarian law (AFP)

The British foreign secretary has said that Saudi Arabia is complying with international human rights laws in Yemen, a claim that one human rights advocate called "extraordinary".

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond's comments came in a 5 April letter sent to MP Stephen Twigg, head of a cross-party committee that has called on the UK government to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing "overwhelming" evidence that the Saudi coalition has violated international law.

In February, the Commons international development committee said that the flow of arms to Saudi Arabia had soared since the start of the Yemen conflict, with close to £3bn of export licences granted in the last six months, a figure that dwarfs the previous year's total.

The committee is scheduled to release a report on Wednesday based on its months-long inquiry into Yemen. The report will come a week after UK ministers said they were urging Saudi Arabia to speed up its own inquiry into its intervention in Yemen which Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood reportedly said had been "frustratingly slow".

But in Hammond's letter to Twigg that was only recently posted on the committee's website, the foreign secretary said that there was "no clear risk" that Saudi might be using UK arms to commit serious human rights violations.

He also said that the Saudi-led coalition is not targeting civilians and that Saudi Arabia is investigating "incidents of concern" and "remains genuinely committed" to complying with international humanitarian law.

David Mepham, UK director of Human Rights Watch, said that while the British government has "long been in denial" about Saudi military operations in Yemen, Hammond's comments were "extraordinary".

"[Hammond] asserts that the Saudi-led coalition has not targeted civilians in Yemen, although Human Rights Watch and others have documented multiple attacks on markets, hospitals, schools and private homes in violation of the laws of war," said Mepham.

Mepham also said that Hammond's claims that Saudi Arabia has put procedures in place to ensure adherence to the laws of war and investigate incidents of concern is misleading.

"The reality is one of ongoing, large-scale violations by the Saudis in Yemen that have continued for over a year, and a refusal by the Saudis either to acknowledge these violations or properly investigate them," he said.

The Saudi-led coalition began a military campaign in March 2015 against the Houthis in Yemen, who have seized the capital Sanaa among other parts of the country.  

The UN says that more than 6,400 people have been killed since then and around 2.8 million displaced.