UK to resume selling arms to Saudi Arabia despite 'possible' war crimes in Yemen

7 July 2020, 15:38

Saudi Hawk jets are among the arms sold to the Arabic kingdom by the UK
Saudi Hawk jets are among the arms sold to the Arabic kingdom by the UK. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The UK is to resume selling weapons to Saudi Arabia despite "possible" war crimes committed by the Middle Eastern kingdom in Yemen.

Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss said on Tuesday the UK Government had complied with a court order by assessing whether Saudi Arabia would use British weapons to break international humanitarian law (IHL).

Last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that Britain broke the law by allowing arms sales to Saudi Arabia without assessing whether they might be used nefariously in the war in neighbouring Yemen.

Following the ruling, the UK was for a year barred from granting export licences to sell arms to Saudi Arabia - Britain's biggest weapons purchaser.

However, on Tuesday, Ms Truss confirmed the country could once again issue new licences to export arms to the Middle Eastern kingdom.

This is despite the acknowledgement that the weapons could be used to commit war crimes.

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Liz Truss said the UK could once again issue new licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia
Liz Truss said the UK could once again issue new licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia. Picture: PA

Ms Truss said that although the actions of Saudi forces had caused "credible incidents of concern" and led to "possible" breaches of IHL, the UK Government considered these "isolated incidents" and believes "Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with IHL."

"The incidents which have been assessed to be possible violations of IHL occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons," her statement read.

It adds: "The undertaking that my predecessor gave to the Court – that we would not grant any new licences for the export of arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia for possible use in Yemen – falls away."

It comes just one day after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the UK's new Magnitsky-style legislation that, he said, would hold the "very worst" human rights abusers to account.

Speaking to MPs in the House of Commons, he said Britain's first sanctions for human rights abuse will cover those involved in a number of high-profile international deaths, including that of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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The Reason Why Saudi Arabia Simply Can't Buy Weapons Elsewhere

Anyone involved in such acts will be prevented from entering the UK, channelling their money through its banks, or profiting from the British economy.

Ms Truss' statement to exporters added: "The broader commitment that was given to parliament, relating to licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners... no longer applies.

"The government will now begin the process of clearing the backlog of licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that has built up since 20 June last year."

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen by assisting the internationally recognised government in its fight against Houthi rebels, who control large areas in the country.

However, humanitarian groups and the United Nations were swift in accusing the Saudi-led Arab coalition of breaching IHL by bombing schools, hospitals, weddings and food infrastructure.

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Roughly 100,000 people have died due to the conflict, with 80 per cent of Yemenis requiring humanitarian assistance.

The United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has said “the crisis is of cataclysmic proportions.”

Since the bombing of Yemen started roughly five years ago, the UK Government has issued export licences worth £5.3 billion, including £2.5 billion of licences relating to bombs, missiles and other types of artillery.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade called the decision "disgraceful and morally bankrupt" and said it exposed the "rank hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy."

"The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and the government itself admits that UK-made have played a central role on the bombing," he said

"We will be considering this new decision with our lawyers, and will be exploring all options available to challenge it."

Mr Smith added: "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?

"This exposes the rank hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy. Only yesterday the government was talking about the need to sanction human rights abusers, but now it has shown that it will do everything it can to continue arming and supporting one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world."

Rosa Curling of Leigh Day solicitors, which took the original case to court, said the decision was being looked at "carefully."

Green Party MP for Brighton Caroline Lucas said: "How the Foreign Secretary can say on one day that the UK will act as a force for good in the world, standing up for human rights, and then on the next, agree to this moral outrage is just unbelievable.

"The hypocrisy leaves me lost for words."

Labour MP for Norwich South Clive Lewis added: "No words can describe how angry I am at this news. This cannot be allowed to happen."

And his colleague Fabian Hamilton, MP for Leeds North East, said: "A couple of weeks ago, I wrote to Jacob Rees-Mogg urging the government to play its part in convening the Committee on Arms Export Controls.

"This shows that the work of that committee, and the scrutiny that comes with it, is more important than ever."