Backbench MPs have called for an independent international inquiry into breaches of humanitarian law committed by all sides in the war in Yemen, in a snub to the government and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
The cross-party international development committee contradicted Mr Hammond, who has rejected criticism of the record of Saudi Arabia, a close British ally and major arms purchaser, in the war.
Saudi Arabia and another ally, the United Arab Emirates, have led an air campaign against rebels backed by Iran who drove the recognised president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, out of the capital, Sana’a, and been accused of killing thousands of civilians.
Mr Hammond wrote to the committee that there was “no clear risk” that Saudi Arabia might use weapons bought from Britain to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.
He said the Saudi coalition was not targeting civilians, and was itself “investigating incidents of concern, including those involving civilian casualties”.
However, the committee’s report, released on Wednesday, said it chose to differ and that additionally relief work was being affected.
“The evidence we have received, from humanitarian actors operating on the ground in Yemen and respected human rights organisations including UN commissioned evidence, unanimously suggested that humanitarian law (IHL) is being breached,” it concluded.
“We recommend that an independent investigation into alleged violations of IHL by both sides of the conflict in Yemen is conducted without delay. We remain unconvinced that Saudi Arabia is best placed to conduct investigations into reports of IHL abuses by the Saudi-led Coalition.”
The war in Yemen has killed upwards of 6,000 people, many from air strikes, with human rights and aid groups saying hospitals, markets and other civilian targets have been hit. The rebels, led by a Shia militia called the Houthis and ousted former President Ali Abdullah al-Saleh, have also been accused of placing troops in schools and hospitals, and shelling civilian areas.
The committee said it was focusing on the role of Saudi Arabia because of its close relationship to Britain.
The Saudi and Emirati authorities have insisted that civilian casualties are unintentional. In a key development, Britain and other allies began to place military advisers in the Saudi-led operations room to advise on targeting – reportedly reducing the casualty rate for civilians but also implicating the British government when civilians are hit.
There is currently a ceasefire, with talks beginning in Kuwait.
The committee said it was important to determine whether British-supplied weapons had been used to commit war crimes. Steven Twigg, the chairman, called on the Parliamentary Committees on Arms Exports Controls to consider an interim ban on more arms exports.
The report was welcomed by Human Rights Watch, whose British head, David Melpham, was particularly critical of Mr Hammond’s letter.
“The British government has long been in denial about Saudi military operations in Yemen,” he said. “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.”