UN experts have called on Britain and the US to stop giving weapons to Saudi Arabia for its campaign in Yemen amid evidence that Western bombs are being used in potential war crimes.
A report for the UN Human Rights Council said all sides in the war – the Yemeni government and its Saudi-led backers as well as the Iranian-supported Houthis rebels – may have committed war crimes.
The detailed report said both sides had conscripted child soldiers and carried out acts of torture as well as other human rights violations.
The report found that at least 6,475 civilians have been killed since the Saudi intervention began in March 2015 but said the “real figure is likely to be significantly higher”.
Most of the civilian casualties were caused by airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led military coalition, the panel of experts said.
The experts concluded that some of the coalition strikes “may amount to war crimes”.
“Individuals in the Government and the coalition, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, may have conducted attacks in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution that may amount to war crimes.”
Both the UK and US supply Saudi Arabia with munitions that are used in Yemen. An American laser-guided bomb is believed to have been used in a coalition strike in early August which killed 40 children.
In the UN report, experts urged the international community to “refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict in Yemen”.
It noted that coalition airstrikes have hit “markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities”.
Human rights groups seized on the report as they repeated calls for the UK and US to stop arming Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition.
“Our allies Saudi Arabia and UAE are among the parties accused of potential war crimes, and yet the UK continues to sell weapons to both,” said George Graham, Save the Children’s director of conflict and humanitarian advocacy
“Our government must make it clear that deliberate or disproportionate attacks on civilians are never acceptable, and immediately suspend arms sales to all parties fighting in Yemen.”
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said the UK government was “carefully considering” the UN report: “We take reports of alleged International Humanitarian Law violations very seriously and call for all parties to the conflict to adhere to International Humanitarian Law.”
CNN reported that the Pentagon had warned Saudi Arabia that it would cut back military support if the coalition did not take steps to reduce civilian casualties.
A decision to reduce US support for Saudi Arabia would need to be approved by Donald Trump, who has so far been a staunch supporter of Riyadh and a champion of US arms sales to the Saudi military.
James Mattis, the US defence, secretary, said American support for the coalition was “not unconditional” but gave no indication that the US planned to withdraw support.
“Our conduct there is to try to keep the human cost of innocents being killed accidentally to the absolute minimum. That is our goal,” he said.
The Saudi-led coalition said it had referred the report to its legal team for review. The coalition has previously accused the UN of making “biased” reports about airstrikes in Yemen and relying too heavily on rebel accounts.
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The UN call for the international community to stop providing arms for use in Yemen was likely also aimed at Iran, which has allegedly supplied the Houthis with ballistic missiles which they have fired into Saudi Arabia.
The report accused the Houthi rebels of possible war crimes of their own including “cruel treatment and torture, outrages upon personal dignity and conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 or using them to participate actively in hostilities”.
The UN experts said they had a submitted a list of potential war criminals to the UN Human Rights Commissioner but that more investigation would be needed to establish precise responsibilities.