Exclusive: Labour accuses government of failing to protect civilians in conflict

Elliot Chappell
© anasalhajj/Shutterstock.com

Labour has urged the government not to hide from its international responsibilities and warned that the UK is currently “failing to take sufficient action on the issue of protecting civilians in conflict”, LabourList can reveal.

Shadow minister Fabian Hamilton has told the minister responsible that the UK should have engaged with the international political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, particularly amid the war in Yemen.

Writing to James Cleverly, the shadow minister for peace and disarmament highlighted the bombing of civilians in Yemen, as well as UN figures showing an estimated 20,384 civilians were killed or injured by the use of such weapons in 2018 alone.

“Alongside the immediate impact of explosive weapons, there are many long-term effects on local populations,” Hamilton wrote, adding that the UK should take a “consistent approach with all governments” on explosive weapons.

He told Cleverly that he had received “disappointing answers” from defence minister James Heapey, who recently replied to a parliamentary question from the shadow minister to say only that the declaration had not yet been published.

A conference on protecting civilians in urban warfare was held in 2019 to contribute towards the political declaration. The latest draft declaration was published in January 2021 and is set to be finalised when an in-person gathering is possible.

Hamilton reminded Cleverly that he had written to him about Protocol V of the UN convention on certain conventional weapons last year, and that the minister had said at the time that the government would bring the matter to parliament “soon”.

Protocol V of the UN convention on certain conventional weapons establishes a responsibility on countries that have used explosive military equipment to assist with the clearance of unexploded weaponry created.

“If the government is serious about arms control and civilian protection, it must not hide from its responsibilities and act alongside our close partners, such as the Republic of Ireland, to take this agenda forward,” Hamilton wrote.

The UN has reported that explosive weapons killed 32,110 people overall in 2018 and that 90% of those killed or injured were civilians when the weapons were used in populated areas. This compared to 20% in other areas.

Civilian deaths and injuries from the use of explosives by governments were almost as high, at 10,040, as those caused by non-state weapons, which killed 10,716 people. Improvised explosive devices were responsible for 42% of casualties.

Air-launched explosive weapons were responsible for the next highest proportion, 32%, while ground-launched equipment accounted for 15%. The remaining 11% were caused by multiple devices (9%), mines (1%) and naval-launched explosives (<1%).

According to Save the Children, 93,263 children have been killed or maimed in conflict in the past ten years. The charity has pointed out that this is equivalent to 25 children, or a classroom-sized group, killed or injured every day.

Labour has repeatedly criticised the government over arms sales. Keir Starmer pointed out last month that the integrated review of defence and foreign policy contained nothing on “updating our arms exports regime”.

Earlier this year, the US suspended the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen. The Labour leader used a Prime Minister’s Questions session last month to call on Boris Johnson to do the same.

Aid organisations recently condemned the government after ministers decided to cut around 50% of the UK’s support for humanitarian efforts in Yemen, branding it a “death sentence” for people suffering in the country’s civil war.

Starmer condemned the decision during the questions session in March, describing the “appalling humanitarian cost”, saying: “If this is what the Prime Minister thinks global Britain should look like, he should think again.”

Below is the full text of the letter sent by Labour shadow minister Fabian Hamilton today.

Dear James,

I’m writing to you regarding the political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

There has never been a more appropriate time to tackle the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The bombing of civilians in Yemen is just one clear example of where the international community could come together, under the auspices of the United Nations and international law, to do all it can to prevent these atrocities.

But the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen isn’t just an isolated incident. The use of explosive weapons against civilians is a significant cause of death across the world, particularly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

UN figures suggest that, in 2018, an estimated 20,384 civilians were killed or injured by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. According to Save the Children, suicide bombs, landmines, unexploded ordinance and air strikes account for 72% of child deaths and injuries in conflicts across the world.

We have seen the devastation explosive weapons can cause just last week in Colombia, where at least one child was killed by a government airstrike. This is absolutely unacceptable and I would urge you to address this incident directly with your Colombian counterpart.

Alongside the immediate impact of explosive weapons, there are many long-term effects on local populations. These include: injuries that require specialist medical and psychological care; damage to housing, transport networks, access to water and energy supplies that can increase the spread of disease; the destruction of schools, making it difficult for children to access education; and an increase in the number of displaced people.

The declaration seeks to inject new momentum into efforts to protect civilians in conflict, and draws attention to the importance of minimising the effects on civilians of explosive weapons in urban conflict, the requirement to act in compliance with the law of armed conflict and promote the principles of international humanitarian law, the importance of assisting victims and the need to share practices and approaches.

The UK should take a consistent approach with all governments on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and hold to account those who recklessly endanger civilians.

I have recently received some very disappointing answers from defence minister, James Heapey, to my written parliamentary questions asking what the UK is doing to feed in to the drafting of the political declaration.

More broadly, the government is failing to take sufficient action on the issue of protecting civilians in conflict. I wrote to you last year regarding protocol V of the UN convention on certain conventional weapons and the UK’s failure to ratify it. You assured me that it was the government’s intention to bring this to the House soon.

If the government is serious about arms control and civilian protection, it must not hide from its responsibilities and act alongside our close partners, such as the Republic of Ireland, to take this agenda forward. I would therefore be grateful if you could answer the following questions:

  • Has the government made any representations to those involved in drafting the political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas?
  • What discussions has the government had with allies and partners on the political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas?
  • Will the government commit to signing the political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas?
  • When will the government finally bring protocol V of the UN convention on certain conventional weapons to the House so it can be ratified?

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

Fabian

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