The neutrality of the chief gatekeeper to the UK’s arms control regime has been brought into question after he repeatedly attacked the integrity of British nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs) claims about civilian deaths in Yemen.
Labor lawmaker Graham Jones, chair of the Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), also said that blame for the war in Yemen lay primarily with Iran, and not the West or Saudi Arabia.
Jones is the most senior lawmaker overseeing Britain’s arms control regime, including the lawfulness of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Yemen’s UN-backed government, supported by Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) forces, has been trying to dislodge a Houthi militia in the country.
Jones told the defense select committee that NGOs were “dishonest” in their reporting.
“We see it time and time again with regards to airstrikes — there is a gross exaggeration by NGOs as to what has happened. You just have to pick up the newspaper. The examples they finally do get to attribute, you suddenly find after investigating they are inaccurate and grossly inaccurate,” he said.
Jones said there was “a constant stream of stories” generated by NGOs based on so-called evidence that turned out to be false.
NGOs working in the region are privately furious at what they regard as a belittling of their legitimate efforts to highlight the number of civilian casualties caused by Saudi Arabian airstrikes.
They insist they have also called out Houthi war crimes, but point out the UK is supplying weapons to the Saudis and not the Houthis.
Jones told the Guardian that the NGOs misunderstood the region’s problems.
“It’s disgraceful how NGOs and loony leftwing organizations have refused to back the UN’s unanimous position. We desperately need peace in Yemen, not fantasy answers made in safe European homes,” he said.
“The problems in Yemen are not an airstrike problem, they are an economic collapse problem created by the mismanagement of the economy by violent illegal and occupying militia,” he said.
Jones said that without changes on the ground — which was regrettably only achievable through military defeat for the Houthis — there would be no talks.
“Yemenis know that, but Westerners do not,” he said. “Attacking Saudi Arabia, for all its faults, is not a solution for Yemen. It is a cuddly safe European response [or in some cases just a continuation of the Cold War].”
Many civilian deaths were because Houthi forces placed human shields in the way of the West’s allie, he said.
“I never read from the NGO community the huge problem we have now where human shields are being used. The coalition does not have the imagery to know anything other than that there is an enemy force on the rooftop. Before you know it, even using the lightest munitions and the wisest of considerations, you end up killing innocent people,” he said.
“It is only from the generals and the Ministry of Defence that we get any honesty on this. I never read from the NGO community about the huge problem that we have in Yemen now, and in other recent theatres, where there are non-state actors and where human shields are being use,” he said.
Jones said he was shocked that NGOs did not do more to distinguish between deaths caused by coalition airstrikes and those of people forming human shields.
Although his criticism of the sometimes simplistic anti-Saudi Arabian commentary on the complex Yemen civil war is shared by many experts, his role as a monitor of UK arms exports to Saudi arguably places a duty on him to be more restrained.
In a separate e-mail exchange with a Jordanian-based group of reporters, Jones attributed the war in Yemen to Iran and not to the West. In a message turning down an interview request, he said: “The main problem is Iran to Yemen, not [the] West to Yemen, which is nothing more than a political agenda rather than factual presentation. Too many on this bandwagon.”
CAEC a merger of four select committees, has had a checkered history. During the last parliament there was no agreement on whether the government should ban British arms export-control licenses to Saudi Arabia.
More recently CAEC has focused on a sweeping review of the UK arms control regime, although it did also write to the Saudi Arabian embassy in London calling for an investigation into an airstrike on a market in August last year.
A reply has not been received.
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