UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been found unlawful – this could end the war in Yemen

Opinion piece (The Independent)
Beth Oppenheim
20 June 2019

The UK knew the Saudi-led coalition was bombing Yemeni civilians and yet it carried on selling arms. Why has it taken legal action to force the British government to abide by national, EU and international law?

The Saudi-led incursion into Yemen is arguably the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe in recent years – leaving nearly 100,000 people dead, 2 million displaced and 22 million in need of humanitarian aid, not to mention creating the worst cholera outbreak in history – and Britain has abetted it. British weapons systems and personnel are sustaining the war in Yemen.

Today the Court of Appeal ruled that the licence of billions of pounds worth of arms by Britain to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen has been unlawful. In its judgment, the court said the British government erred in failing to assess whether the Saudi-led coalition had violated international humanitarian law during the Yemen conflict.

For now, the British government cannot grant new licences to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen, and must re-evaluate its past export licence decisions based on the new judgement. The UK government will appeal the decision, but will stop licensing arms that might be used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen with immediate effect.

The decision could curtail the conflict in Yemen. It may also shape arms export policy across Europe. The war in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis is being sustained by the international arms trade, predominantly by the US, UK and France, who from 2013-2017 provided 61 per cent, 23 per cent and 3.6 per cent of Saudi arms imports respectively.

The UK has a particularly deep defence relationship with Saudi Arabia, and has become too reliant on large Saudi defence contracts as a means of supporting the British defence industry. Half of the Saudi royal air force is made up of military aircraft supplied by the UK. Britain has also sent military advisers and trainers to Saudi Arabia, and trains Saudi cadets in Britain.

It really should not have taken legal action to force the British government to abide by national, EU and international law. The EU Common Position on Arms Export Controls, which binds the UK, sets out eight criteria, including respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, against which member states must test export licences in the destination country.

Yet, while this is legally binding, there are no sanctions for failing to follow it. Not only this, but member states are free to decide how they interpret the export criteria, which they often do loosely.

The UK had ample evidence the Saudi-led coalition were violating international law. In August 2018, UN experts reported that the Yemeni, Emirati and Saudi governments were violating international human rights and humanitarian law. They pointed to the targeting of civilian spaces – weddings, funerals, markets and hospitals – by the coalition using precision-guided munitions; severe aerial and naval restrictions on humanitarian access; and arbitrary detention and torture by coalition forces.

More recently, a UK House of Lords committee concluded the UK government was “narrowly on the wrong side of international humanitarian law”, while the European parliament has said member states that supply weapons to the Saudi-led coalition are “in violation” of the EU Common Position on Arms Export Controls.

Yet the UK government will continue to contort itself into impossible rhetorical knots and pursue all legal means to maintain close ties with Saudi Arabia. “Our strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia helps us to keep the UK safe, to make progress on diplomatic priorities like Yemen, and to discuss frankly issues of concern,” the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted in March. Yet evidence of Britain trying to influence Saudi Arabia to resolve the war in Yemen is thin, while supporting crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s adventurist foreign policy undermines Europe’s security.

Other justifications for European arms exports often reeled off by European politicians also fail to stand up. The rising number of civilian casualties undermines the argument often made that the sale of western precision-guided munitions reduces the human cost. Meanwhile, the idea that the Saudi-led coalition would simply buy instead from countries like Russia or China ignores the fact their current weapons systems would not be compatible with Russian or Chinese systems, incurring delays and high costs.

The court made clear it was adjudicating purely on the basis of law, not morality. But the British government should accept it has a moral duty to restrict arms exports that will sustain this appalling human suffering. Britain restricting its arms exports might not end the conflict, but it would definitely help.

The UK restricting its arms exports could also shift policy at EU level: discomfort with exporting to the Saudis has been spreading across the continent, with some countries, notably Germany, placing restrictions on arms sales. An EU-level decision would powerfully signal a common European arms policy based upon international law, rather than a fractured approach driven by economic and political incentives.

The government’s hand has been forced by the courts. Yemenis have suffered enough: now the British government should put their wellbeing first.

Beth Oppenheim is a researcher at the Centre for European Reform.