Ban Ki-moon urges UK to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia

The aftermath of an airstrike in Al Hudaydah, Yemen, which Ban Ki-moon said was ‘in flames’ from bombing. Photograph: Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters
The aftermath of an airstrike in Al Hudaydah, Yemen, which Ban Ki-moon said was ‘in flames’ from bombing. Photograph: Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters

Britain has come under renewed pressure to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia after the UN secretary general accused the Saudis of indiscriminate bombing in Yemen and said countries such as the UK had a duty to stop the flow of weapons to Riyadh-led forces.

Speaking in London, Ban Ki-moon said: “Yemen is in flames and coalition airstrikes in particular continue to strike schools, hospitals, mosques and civilian infrastructure.”

He claimed that Yemen “was awash with weapons”, adding: “We need states that are party to [the] arms trade treaty to set an example in fulfilling one of the treaty’s main purposes – controlling arms flows to actors that may use them in ways that breach international humanitarian law”.

Ban said permanent members of the UN security council, including the UK, had a special responsibility to secure peace in intractable conflicts.

The normally mild mannered Ban made his pointed remarks in a speech in which he bemoaned the failure of major powers to live up to their promises to prevent massacres and human rights abuses on the scale of Syria, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Cambodia and Yemen. The promises of “never again”, he said, have become more muted.

A special UN panel report, leaked a fortnight ago, accused Saudi Arabia of makingnumerous breaches of international humanitarian law by conducting an indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen.

The UK’s international development select committee, supported by the Labour party leadership, this week called on the government to suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and set up an independent international inquiry into the allegations made by the UN panel.

Partly under pressure from the UK Foreign Office, Saudi Arabia has set up its own inquiry into the allegations, but the committee said an inquiry conducted by the Saudis into their own actions was unacceptable.

The UN panel documented that the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law. These included:

  • Camps for internally displaced persons and refugees
  • Civilian gatherings including weddings
  • Civilian vehicles, including buses, and civilian residential areas
  • Medical facilities, schools, mosques, markets, factories, food storage warehouses and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as Sana’a airport and domestic transit routes

Britain has denied allegations that it has influence over the Saudi targeting, but admitted being involved in training some of the pilots involved in the airstrikes. The UK has granted close to £3bn of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia in the past six months.

It is the first time that Ban has commented on the scale of the alleged atrocities in Yemen.

The secretary general was speaking at an event organised by the United Nations Association UK and Chatham House at Central Hall in Westminster, where the UN first met 70 years ago. He was in London as the UN was acting as the co-sponsor of the international fundraising conference that generated nearly $10bn (£6.9bn) for Syrian refugees over the next few years.

Ban also gave a broad hint that he wants a woman to succeed him as secretary general later this year, saying that the whole landscape is changed when there is a woman at the top of political organisations.

“It is proven [that] companies with large numbers of women on their boards are more successful and profitable,” he said. In another broad hint, he said the empowerment of women was at the top of his agenda at the helm of the UN.

Ban is due to stand down at the end of 2016 after nine years in the top job, and the jostling for succession for the most important diplomatic post in the world is already under way.

His criticism of Saudi Arabia comes after the country began bombing Yemen last March in an attempt to push back Houthi rebels who had managed to take control of the capital, Sana’a, and force the president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to flee. Hadi is backed by the Saudis, while the Houthi rebels are aligned, at least loosely, with Iran.

Britain is under some diplomatic pressure to loosen its ties with Saudi Arabia since Iran, the kingdom’s arch rival in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, is making overtures to the west in the wake of the historic nuclear deal that led to the lifting of sanctions against Iran last month.

The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, met the UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, in London on Friday to discuss Syria and the possible role Iran could play in bringing about an end to the civil war. Iran clearly believes that Saudi Arabia is behaving as a disruptive force in the peace talks and will not accept that Iran has a legitimate role in acting as one of the international partners responsible for guaranteeing any peace deal in Syria.

Faced by a brutal Russian air bombardment that is strengthening the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, by the day, western powers are becoming less vocal in their demand that he must go at the end of the process. The UK is exploring the extent to which Iran could press Assad to remain in situ, either in a ceremonial role or by dispersing power within Syria, possibly along the lines of the Iraqi constitution.

Neither Iran nor Russia will accept a power vacuum in Damascus, arguing that this would mean Syria being handed over to Islamic State.


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