The UK is to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite concerns they could be used against civilians in Yemen, in violation of international humanitarian law.
Sales were suspended last year after a legal challenge by campaigners. A subsequent review found “isolated incidents” of possible violations but no pattern of non-compliance and “no clear risk” of future serious breaches. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade said it was a “morally bankrupt” move. It accused the government of “rank hypocrisy” after, on Monday, it banned 20 senior Saudi officials from entering the UK and frozen their assets in connection with the 2018 killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Labour said the government’s “mixed messages…undermined the UK’s claim to be human rights defenders”.
The UK’s support for the Saudi-led international coalition in Yemen, which is backing the country’s government in its battle against a long-running Houthi insurgency, has proved highly controversial.
Thousands of people, including many civilians, have been killed in the five-year conflict, while millions have been made homeless or left starving. The UN has verified the deaths of at least 7,700 civilians since 2015 and said 60% of these were due to bombing raids by the Saudi-led coalition, whose other members include the United Arab Emirates.
Monitoring groups believe the toll is far higher with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project identifying 12,000 civilians killed in direct attacks. According to campaigners, the UK has licensed £5.3bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015.
British officials have provided military advice to the Saudi-led coalition, including on bombing targets and tactics. Under UK export policy, military equipment licences should not be granted if there is a “clear risk” that weapons might be used in a “serious violation of international humanitarian law”.
The UK was forced to review its policy after the Court of Appeal ruled in June 2019 that its decision-making process was unlawful as no attempt had been made to assess whether serious breaches had occurred in Yemen. In a statement, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the UK had now analysed individual allegations of abuses, using new methodology, to determine whether there had been a “historic pattern of breaches”. While some of these incidents were assessed as “possible” violations, she said they “occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons and the conclusion is that these are isolated incidents”. “In the light of all that information and analysis, I have concluded that…Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with international humanitarian law,” she said. “On that basis, I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation.” She said sales could resume and the “backlog” of individual licences which have accumulated since last June would be cleared subject to them meeting UK and EU criteria.
The Campaign Against The Arms Trade said the government’s decision was “disgraceful”. “The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the government itself admits that UK-made arms have played a central role on the bombing,” it said. “The evidence shows a clear pattern of heinous and appalling breaches of international humanitarian law by a coalition which has repeatedly targeted civilian gatherings such as weddings, funerals, and market places. “The government claims that these are isolated incidents, but how many hundreds of isolated incidents would it take for the government to stop supplying the weaponry?”
Labour said they would be pressing Ms Truss to explain her decision to Parliament. “Even by this government’s standards, their decision to resume the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen is morally indefensible,” said shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry. “At a time when millions of Yemeni children are facing the mortal threat of starvation and disease, Britain should be working flat out to bring this terrible war to an end, not selling the arms that continue to fuel it.”
The SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman, Alyn Smith, said the government had “repeatedly and disgracefully put profits before peace”.
The UK has long sought to broker a political settlement to the conflict in Yemen while backing the government in its effort to defeat the rebels. But it has been criticised for not taking tougher line with Saudi Arabia, which is a longstanding defence and intelligence ally of the UK.
Germany banned all arms exports to Saudi Arabia in 2018 following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi government.