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The UK’s arming of the Saudis is unlawful, but will a Brexiteering government care?

What does today's court victory by human rights campaigners mean for the future of Britain’s arms exports to both Saudi and other human rights abusing regimes?

Iain Overton
20 June 2019
Campaigners outside the Royal Court of Justice during the hearing into UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia
Campaigners outside the Royal Court of Justice during the hearing into UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia
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Sian Harrison/PA Images

The Court of Appeal in London has ruled today that the UK government’s refusal to consider Saudi Arabia’s laws-of-war violations in Yemen before licensing arms sales to them was unlawful. It is a landmark decision that compels the UK government to reconsider its decision on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It has caused the government to agree to not issue new arms sales to Saudi Arabia until a new lawful decision on arms licenses is made, or it obtains a new court order.

This ruling is a blow to the UK arms industry. Between 2008 and 2017, over 5,200 British military licenses were approved for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, worth some £10.3 billion. The largest single export amount was in 2015, worth £2.9 billion, over 40% of all of the UK’s military arms exports globally that year.

The government has responded to this news with predictable bullishness. Dr Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, spoke in Parliament today following the announcement. He claimed that Britain had the “most robust export policy anywhere in the world” and went on to say that he took “offence” at the concept that “Saudi Arabia is an enemy of British values, including human rights.” Yet, according to information released from the UK Gulf Team Desk, the British embassy in Riyadh itself has expressed “serious concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia” in internal briefings.

Wider human rights concerns are most pronounced in regard to what Saudi Arabian planes have done over the skies of Yemen, a country that has been in a seemingly intractable civil war for four years. Since 2015, English language news reports have noted over 9,000 civilian casualties from Saudi-led coalition airstrikes there - 86% of all those killed or injured by airstrikes.

It is a harm that is getting worse. There was a 9% increase in civilian harm reported last year compared to 2017. And in 2018, the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 85% of all civilian casualties from explosive weapon use in Yemen.

Approved arms exports to Saudi Arabia by UK government - graph showing rise 2008-2017

Targeting is a major issue. 84% of the civilian casualties from the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have occurred in populated areas, such as residential areas, schools, hospitals and markets. And this bombardment and destruction of civilian infrastructure has contributed significantly to the wider humanitarian emergency with 22.2 million Yemenis now in need of humanitarian assistance.

It is unquestionable that UK’s arms sales have helped fuel this harm.

In March 2016, for instance, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed that, as part of Operation Decisive Storm: “UK-built and licensed Typhoon and Tornado aircraft from the Royal Saudi Air Force have been deployed on combat missions in the Yemen campaign. UK-sourced weapons have also been used. In addition, we have in the past supplied the UAE with PGM 500 precision-guided bombs (also known as the Hakim 2) that have also been used in the conflict.” The Hakim bomb is notable for having caused several civilian fatalities in Yemen. In September 2015, human rights researchers examined weapon remnants at a strike zone in Sana’a Governate and identified the munition as a PGM-500 ‘Hakim’.

Such evidence, combined with the Court decision today, poses major questions as to the judgement of Conservative leadership front-runner Boris Johnson. In 2016, the then Foreign Secretary recommended the UK sell British-made bomb parts to Saudi Arabia, only days after a Saudi-led airstrike on a potato factory killed 14 people in Yemen.

Other concerns are also raised about the competency of Graham Jones MP, the Chair of the Control Arms Export Committee, a body tasked with the oversight of export licenses. Jones has said that “NGOs and loony leftwing organisations” misunderstand the problem in Yemen, and that the humanitarian crisis there is not about foreign airstrikes, but economic collapse and internal militia. He has also written that he finds it “impossible to agree” that it is unethical that the UK continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.

Thursday’s court ruling may have wider implications too. It is of note that, between 2008 and 2017, arms exports have been granted to 29 of the 30 countries on the UK's own human rights “priority countries list” (all with the exception of North Korea). If the UK government has failed to address fully concerns about human rights abuses from its arms licences to Saudi Arabia, then what about the other 28 countries it has granted arms export licenses to, despite its own reservations about those countries’ human rights records?

The looming cliff-edge of Brexit, though, means there is little political appetite to curb UK arms exports. The value of such UK arms licensed to human rights abusing regimes and dictatorships has increased by almost one third since the referendum. And Dr Liam Fox has recently visited Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates - all regimes listed on the Department of International Trade’s own “priority markets” for arms exports.

So, while this ruling today may be a victory for human rights campaigners, with Britain’s trading future in the balance, it is unlikely it will be applauded by those who promise a glorious post-Brexit trading future for Britain. One unshackled from the very humanitarian constraints on the arms trade that the EU imposes.

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