Political row follows BBC Newsnight report
MPs and parliamentary staff face the prospect of a trawl of their emails by private investigators, as anger grows over a leak of a report into Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The Independent learnt that a Commons committee is poised to debate taking this unprecedented step and that its chairman believes a demand for a probe must be taken seriously. The move would be a backlash against the BBC’s Newsnight being handed extensive details about a forthcoming report into whether weapons sales to the Saudis should be banned. (see report below)
The leak revealed a draft report by the parliamentary committee charged with scrutinising arms exports and found it was likely that British weapons had been used to commit war crimes in Yemen.
The Saudis stand accused of bombing hospitals run by Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as schools, wedding parties and food factories, in a military blitz against rebels.
However, it then became clear that an effort was underway to dilute the call to halt arms sales – suggesting a battle between rivals on the committee.
Crispin Blunt, the Tory chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, condemned the initial leak as a “deliberate campaign to influence a select committee” on “life and death issues”, and he urged the Commons Speaker John Bercow to call in private investigators to find the culprit responsible for “in-confidence information provided by a member of this House or their staff”.
That decision would have to be taken by the Liaison Committee, the body comprising the heads of every parliamentary select committee. The Independent has now learnt that Andrew Tyrie, the Liaison Committee’s Tory chairman, believes the leak is among the most serious and disruptive Westminster has seen.
The investigators should, Mr Blunt argued, have the power to “interrogate the electronic records, including deleted emails” of MPs and staff. The Speaker also agreed it was a “serious matter” that threatened the effective working of the committee system.
Mr Bercow told MPs: “If the committees of this House are to work effectively, we cannot have a situation in which individual members of a committee leak information, in advance, to advance a particular point of view or to retard the progress of another.”
Mr Tyrie told The Independent: “I will discuss this in the first instance with the deputy chairman of the Liaison Committee and then, if appropriate, with the whole committee.”
A police investigation into the affair is not, however, possible, because the leaks would not be a criminal offence.
The draft report by the cross-party Committees on Arms Export Controls, made up of 16 MPs from four select committees, said it was “inevitable” that arms supplied by the UK had been used in breaches of international law.
On Newsnight, Mr Blunt refused to say whether he had deliberately walked out of a meeting of committee members, to make the meeting inquorate and impossible for the report to be approved.
The UK should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia while Saudi actions in neighbouring Yemen are investigated, a draft report by MPs has said.
The Committees on Arms Export Controls said it was highly likely that weapons had been used to violate international humanitarian and human rights laws.
The draft report was seen by the BBC's Newsnight programme.
The UK government said it had received assurances from Saudi Arabia but the committee said this was not sufficient to establish the facts.
The government has faced sustained pressure to suspend the sale of weapons to the country amid claims that international humanitarian law has been breached in fighting between the Yemeni government, backed by Saudi Arabia, and Shia Yemeni rebels.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson defended the selling of arms to Saudi Arabia for potential use in Yemen, insisting the export of weapons to the country would continue.
The Committees on Arms Export Controls is made up of four parliamentary committees - business, innovation and skills; defence; foreign affairs; and international development.
Its draft report, seen by Newsnight's Gabriel Gatehouse, said: "The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia."
The committee said it seemed "inevitable" that such violations had involved arms supplied by the UK which would mean it was in violation of its own legal obligations.
The UK government said it operated one of the strictest arms licensing regimes in the world, and maintained it had received assurances from Saudi Arabia that it operated within the boundaries of international law.
The draft report concluded that those assurances were not sufficient and the UK should suspend exports until an international and independent inquiry could establish the facts.
Save the Children said it was calling on Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to back a resolution to establish an international investigation when the UN Human Rights Council meets in Geneva later this month.
"This is a concrete opportunity finally to get to the bottom of alleged violations by all parties to the conflict, including the Saudi-led coalition, which investigations carried out by Saudi Arabia itself cannot deliver," spokeswoman Kirsty McNeill said.
"Children must always be protected in war, and now the UK government has a unique opportunity to remind the world that war can and must have limits."
Last month, aid agency Oxfam accused the British government of "denial and disarray" over an agreement to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, which could be used in Yemen.
As KP News went to press further details of alleged war crimes in Yemen were emerging. A report in The Guardian claimed that more than a third of all Saudi-led air raids on Yemen had hit civilian targets. One school building had been struck on nine separate occasions.
This latest information comes from the Yemen Data Project which has concentrated its research on the results of aerial bombardment, rather than the ground campaign. Repeated attacks on the same targets undermine the credibility of statements from the Saudi forces that buildings were hit by mistake.
Labour’s shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis commented; “It is sickening to think of British-built weapons being used against civilians and the government has an absolute responsibility to do everything in its power to stop that from happening.”
Adding controversy to the issue, The Guardian reported, was the fact that British military advisers are based at the Saudi headquarters from where the air war against the Houthi rebels is being controlled.
Exactly what this small British contingent is doing there the MoD won’t disclose. It insists that they are not choosing targets, merely ‘advising – including on compliance with international law.’
Subsequently, BBC Newsnight discovered plans to water down the report and remove some of the most critical paragraphs. The attempt was led by Tory Crispin Blunt and Labour anti-Corbyn MP John Spellar. This in turn led to an on-screen row between Blunt and journalist Kirsty Wark (see article above).
See also Britain becomes world’s second biggest arms dealer (below)
TV report reveals plutonium stored in plastic bottles
The Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant is a major accident waiting to happen, according to a report by the BBC Panorama programme broadcast last month.
A whistleblower at the plant claimed that the Cumbria site was riddled with potentially lethal safety flaws. Prominent among these was that liquid containing plutonium and uranium had been stored in thousands of plastic bottles for years. The bottles were degrading, the BBC programme claimed.
Parts of the site were also said to have too few staff to operate safely. The whistleblower, who was quoted anonymously, said his greatest fear was that a fire would break out in one of the nuclear waste silos or one of the processing plants.
“If there is a fire there it could generate a plume of radiological waste that will go across Western Europe," he told the programme.
Minimum staff levels are set for both teams of workers and whole factories and vary across the site. A minimum safe staffing level in certain areas was just six workers, any deviation from which was described as unacceptable by Sellafield’s own safety documents. However, there were 97 incidents between July 2012 and July 2013 where parts of the site had too few workers on shift, according to figures obtained by Panorama.
Part of the problem was down to costs, a fact admitted in the Panorama programme by the plant’s head of nuclear safety Dr Rex Strong. He said: “The organisation is now focusing on putting right some underinvestments of the past in order to support the hazard and waste reduction mission that the site has.”
Meanwhile, an official statement issued by Sellafield claimed the plutonium and uranium samples were kept securely and to imply otherwise was not true.
Meg Hillier MP, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, told the BBC: “It is incredible. It defies belief actually that anything could be working at below safe staffing levels. There is no excuse.”
An expert on Sellafield Gordin Thompson, from the US Institute for Resource and Safety Studies had previously described the site’s high level nuclear wastes as “one of the world’s major concentrations of radiological hazard”.
Only 18 months ago it was being reported that safety limits on nuclear waste storage had been relaxed after an accident knocked out a treatment plant. A breach of safety regulations was officially permitted by the Office for Nuclear Regulations. This brought accusations that Sellafield was putting profits before safety.
“The Statue of Mother and Child in the Storm” stands in the greenbelt alongside Hiroshima’s Peace Boulevard, in front of the large Peace Fountain at the southern edge of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
In 1960 the Hiroshima Municipal Federation of Women’s Associations (the current Hiroshima City Federation of Regional Women’s Organizations) described the idea behind raising this monument in this way: “A mother cradles her baby tightly in her right arm. With her left arm she tries to lift another child, clinging to her, onto her back. She stands in the eye of a storm, taking a strong step forward as her upper body leans down. Her muscular body signifies the power of a mother's love. As mothers of Hiroshima, we hope to erect this statue to express our determination to eliminate nuclear weapons and convey a silent message of peace to every person who visits this park.”
The statue is 1.45 meters high and 1.82 meters wide. It was created by Shin Hongo (1905-1980) in 1953 when he was 47 years old. He is also known as the creator of “Wadatsumi” (“The Voices of the Sea”). When he visited Europe for the first time in 1952, the sculptor saw many statues of the young Christ and the Virgin Mary. After his return to Japan, he made further studies of Japanese Buddhist art and created The Statue of Mother and Child in the Storm.
The then newly-created statue was shown at an exhibition held by the Shinseisaku Art Society in 1953. In 1959 the plaster figure was part of the Peace Art Exhibition in Hiroshima, where it was appreciated by many before being donated to the city. The women's federation then began raising funds to cast the statue in bronze. Support for this aim came largely from the business community, and the bronze statue was completed in August 1960.
Each year on August 6, women of Hiroshima gather in front of the statue and vow to continue making efforts to help abolish nuclear weapons.
This article is adapted from one that appeared in July on the website of the Hiroshima Peace Media Centre.
One of the very few sorties by UK military aircraft in Syria has been a drone that helped launch the air strike in mid September that mistakenly killed 62 Syrian soldiers who were fighting ISIS.
The UK’s involvement in Syria has been lambasted by MPs.
2016 has been a year for destroying the myths of military intervention by the UK.
We had the Chilcot Report, finally published, which attributed the rise of ISIS to the US-UK invasion. Then, last month, Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to commit British warplanes to the bombing of Libya was lambasted in a Foreign Affairs Select Committee report that said this had lead directly to the spread of ISIS into North Africa.
Now, the Commons Defence Select Committee has said that, having won the vote to bomb Syria, the government has no strategy, no plan and only ‘phantom’ allies on the ground – not the much-vaunted 70,000 moderate anti-ISIS forces who were meant to exist.
Where does that leave Hilary Benn’s barnstorming speech supporting the UK military action? Corbyn was right all along!
Record achieved on Cable’s watch
Britain is now the world’s second biggest arms dealer, Government figures have revealed. Most of the weaponry has gone to Middle Eastern states, most prominently Saudi Arabia.
This dubious accolade has been achieved because of the acceleration of arms sales since 2010, which means the minister responsible during most of this period, when the Coalition was in power, was Twickenham’s former Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable in his role as Business Secretary.
And it’s not only the amount sold but to whom that is shocking. Arms were sold to 39 of the 51 countries ranked “not free” on the Freedom House "Freedom in the world" report, and 22 of the 30 countries on the UK Government’s own human rights watch list.
Statistics collated by UK Trade and Investment, the government body that promotes British exports abroad, show the UK has sold more arms than Russia, China, or France on average over the last 10 years. Only the United States is a bigger exporter.
“The UK is one of the world’s most successful defence exporters, averaging second place in the global rankings on a rolling ten-year basis, making it Europe’s leading defence exporter in the period,” the body boasted in a report released this summer.
Ministers, who must sign-off all arms export licences, say the current system is robust and that they have revoked permission to export defence equipment in the past – for example in Russia and Ukraine. This was the ‘defence’ advanced by Cable who was taken to task on numerous occasions by TRAKNAT and Kingston Peace Council.
But the Government has also ignored calls to stop selling weapons to repressive regimes, including Saudi Arabia, which has been accused by UN bodies of potentially committing war crimes in its military operation in Yemen against Houthi rebels.
Both the European Parliament and the House of Commons International Development Committee has called for exports to the autocracy to stop, but the Government says it has not ‘seen evidence’ of Saudi war crimes.
A joint analysis conducted by the Independent newspaper and Campaign Against the Arms Trade found £10bn in arms licences were issued 2010-2015 to regimes designated “unfree” by Freedom House, including China, Oman, Turkmenistan and UAE.
Meanwhile £7.9bn worth of arms were sold to countries on the “human rights priority countries” list, which is maintained by the Foreign Office and includes countries judged by the FCO to have “the worst, or greatest number of, human rights violations”. Customers on this list included Saudi Arabia, which was sold bombs, missiles, and fighter jets, Israel, which was sold drone components and targeting equipment, and Bahrain, which was sold machine guns. Assault rifles and pistols were sent to the Maldives, while Turkmenistan was sold guns and ammunition.
Andrew Smith of CAAT warned that the dependence of British exporters on unsavoury regimes could make the UK less likely to intervene against human rights violators.
He said: “These terrible figures expose the hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy. The government is always telling us that it acts to promote human rights and democracy, but it is arming and supporting some of the most repressive regimes in the world.
“These regimes aren't just buying weapons, they're also buying political support and legitimacy. How likely is the UK to act against human rights violations in these countries when it is also profiting from them?”
And he continued: “There is no such thing as arms control in a war zone and there is no way of knowing how these weapons will be used. The fact that so many weapons were sold to Russia and Libya is a reminder that the shelf-life of weapons is often longer than the governments and situations they were sold to.”
Readers of Kingston Peace News don’t need to be reminded that we live in a far from peaceful world. There’s a lot to protest about if you are a member of a peace group. So it’s good also to have the opportunity to go to schools and talk about peace, and it seems to me that it is something that is really worth doing.
We write to schools in Kingston and Richmond every year suggesting they have an assembly around the date of Peace Day on 21 September. This year we have 14 primary schools booked, including a new school where we will be speaking to 800 children. Maggie continues to hold her listeners in thrall with tales of mules, cranes and Quakers, and to make the point that peace has to begin with each one of us.
This is the eighth year of our schools programme and while primary schools have continued to book assemblies the number of secondary schools has been much more variable.
We know they are under a lot of pressure with the range of topics they have to cover and programmes that must be decided a long time in advance. It’s possible too that secondary schools feel wary about issues of peace and conflict and reluctant to invite outside speakers. Last year though, the PowerPoint presentation we did seemed to work well.
As that brilliant exhibition which All Saints Church kindly hosted in the summer reminded us, we should all be thinking about the Challenging Road to Peace. That is especially true for young people. So we will be sending out a further reminder to local secondary schools. It’s not the date that’s important but getting students to think about the issues and ask what can be done to create a more peaceful world.
We had our usual Peace Day stall in Kingston on 17 September, and a tree with doves and children’s peace messages is now in All Saints church.
What else? Isn’t it time to put more pressure on our government to work for peace in Syria and across the Middle East?
A group of women from all over the world have just embarked on a dangerous journey on board the Women's Boat to Gaza (WBG). Two vessels were leaving from Barcelona in September with the goal of reaching the besieged Palestinian enclave by early October in a symbolic breaking of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
One of these women is Zohar Chamberlain Regev, an Israeli citizen who was born and raised in Kibbutz Kfar Hahoresh, near Nazareth. She has been living in Spain for the past 12 years and has been involved in the Spanish component of Freedom Flotilla work since 2012. She coordinates the Women’s Boat to Gaza Steering Committee and is a team leader onboard the vessel Amal.
The flotilla's mission is part of a campaign to break the ongoing Israeli-Egyptian siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. The two boats Amal (Hope) and Zaytouna (Olive) will stop at two ports before sailing off to Gaza carrying their full capacity of 30 people.
The participants include Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland), Marama Davidson, Green Party MP (New Zealand), and Cigdem Topcuoglu, a professional Turkish athlete and coach who sailed on the Mavi Marmara in 2010 and whose husband was among the ten activists killed by Israeli forces on that voyage.
Newsletter Editor for this issue: Phil Cooper
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this edition are not necessarily those of Kingston Peace Council/CND