A soldier looks through a hole in a building damaged after an airstrike in Yemen. Photo: Hani Mohammed / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reservedThe parliamentary row over arms sales to Saudi Arabia holds a mirror to two faces of British internationalism. One face is that of a leading proponent of international humanitarian law (IHL), human rights and good governance – a champion of the Arms Trade Treaty as it was being negotiated at the UN. The other face, meanwhile, presents a reliable partner, ally and arms supplier to Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia. The UK government has long claimed to look in the mirror and see a coherent image. The war in Yemen shows the cracks in the mirror.
UK arms export policy is scrutinised by the joint Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), comprising members of the Business, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees. When the CAEC was re-convened after the last general election, its first act was to hold an inquiry into the use of UK-manufactured weapons in the war in Yemen. Divided over the draft report and unable to agree its conclusions, parliamentary and media mayhem ensued, featuring leaks to Newsnight, and threats of walk-outs. Eventually, two separate, rival reports were published: one published jointly by the Business and Development Committees, drafted by the CAEC Chair, Chris White MP, which called for a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia; and one from Crispin Blunt’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which concluded the matter was best left to the High Court, which will be hearing a judicial review of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia in January 2017.
They may be rivals, but this isn't a stand-off between one critical report and one whitewash. Indeed, the Foreign Affairs report is deeply critical of the government in many respects, and the two reports share the bulk of their analysis. Rather, the two reports illustrate two strands of British internationalism that are clashing in the war in Yemen. The Foreign Affairs report is symbolic of a British internationalism that proclaims adherence to the rule of law and good governance, but is caught in a bind when faced with evidence that its practices undermine these publicly professed values, and when its major non-liberal democratic allies fail to play by the same rules. Its watchwords are security and stability; it considers the tensions involved in supporting authoritarian regimes as trade-offs to be managed, rather than a fundamental contradiction between rhetoric and practice. Saudi Arabia is characterised in the Foreign Affairs report as a “crucial and indispensable partner”. The partnership is open to limited criticism but not substantial change. The report emphasises the “shared and vital strategic interests”, including “combating manifestations of violent extremism and radicalisation, countering terrorist financing” – a position that requires ignoring the Saudi role in supplying weapons to terrorist groups, and its history of terror financing.
The Business/Development report, meanwhile, is more indicative of that strand of British internationalism that emphasises sustainable security, human rights and humanitarian principles. In this account, the UK’s relationship with the Saudis is “characterised by compromise” and “inconsistent with the UK’s leadership role in the rule of law and international rules-based systems.” Whilst the report accepts the importance of the Gulf region to British security and prosperity, it is concerned that the relationship has come to “counterpose our interests … against our values of respect for international law”. The Business/Development Committees MPs conclude that “it seems inevitable” that violations of IHL were committed using UK-supplied weapons. They thus recommend a suspension of existing licences and refusal of new ones for weapons that could be used in Yemen, pending an independent investigation and resultant review of policy. The Foreign Affairs report, in contrast, concludes that is merely “possible” that violations have been committed using UK-supplied arms, and defers any recommendation to the High Court, which is due to test the legality of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Bearing in mind the government’s legal obligation is to refuse licences where there is a “clear risk” that equipment “might” be used in violations, even the weaker Foreign Affairs conclusion raises questions as to the wisdom of UK policy up to now. A robust application of a framework of risk in a context where it is possible that the Saudi-led coalition is violating IHL in its war in Yemen would require the UK to refuse arms export licences. Hence the significance of the parliamentary and media fallout of the spat within the CAEC, in which Crispin Blunt claimed on Newsnight that if the High Court finds against government, the law should be reconsidered. This is the explicit conclusion of some of the implicit material in the Foreign Affairs report, which seeks to weaken the force of the government’s obligations, in anticipation of the judicial review case.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen is hoisting the UK government on the petard of its commitments to IHL and the rule of law. The dispute between MPs about how to hold the government to account has been bitter and fraught. It also shows the limits of acceptable criticism of UK policy. For all their differences, the two reports concur that the defence industry is “vital for our security and our prosperity.” Arms production and exports remain a sacred cow in mainstream political debate. And both reports present a quandary of how to respond when events “have reversed progress towards our values”. Most mainstream critics still hold on to a self-image of Britain as a progressive, liberal state and an example for others to aspire to – evidence of historical and ongoing entwinement in practices to the contrary notwithstanding. The Government is urged to respond promptly to the reports: which report will it respond to, and what country will it show Britain to be?