The UK government broke the law by selling arms to Saudi Arabia, the Court of Appeal said today in a landmark ruling.
The decision overturned a 2017 judgment which allowed the UK government to continue licensing the export of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.
The legal action was brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) against the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox.
The UK has licensed over £4.7 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the bombing began in March 2015 but ministers will now have to reconsider export licences.
In response to the judgment the UK Government has suspended new arms sales to Saudi Arabia while it urgently reviews it processes.
Shortly after the ruling, Fox made an emergency statement to the Commons and confirmed that the government would seek to appeal. “We are carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision-making,” Fox told MPs.
“While we do this, we will not grant any new licences for export to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which might be used in the conflict in Yemen,” the minister added.
A coalition of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia has been accused of scores of war crimes including airstrikes on schools, hospitals, weddings and offices, among other civilian targets.
The legal action was based on reports from numerous sources who said that Saudi forces had violated international humanitarian law (IHL) in their ongoing bombardment of Yemen.
Criterion 2c of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria says that export licences should not be granted if there is a clear risk the equipment to be exported might be used in a serious violation of IHL.
In its judgment, the court concluded that it was “irrational and therefore unlawful” for the international trade secretary to have made the export licensing decisions without making at least some assessment as to whether or not past incidents amounted to breaches of IHL.
The judges said: “The question whether there was an historic pattern of breaches of IHL … was a question which required to be faced.”
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “We welcome this verdict, but it should never have taken a court case brought by campaigners to force the government to follow its own rules. The Saudi Arabian regime is one of the most brutal and repressive in the world, yet, for decades, it has been the largest buyer of UK-made arms.
“No matter what atrocities it has inflicted, the Saudi regime has been able to count on the uncritical political and military support of the UK. The bombing has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. UK arms companies have profited every step of the way. The arms sales must stop immediately.”
Rosa Curling of law firm Leigh Day, which represented CAAT, said: “Our client is delighted with the judgment handed down today. The court has ruled the government’s procedure for granting licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia is unlawful.
“The government has been forced to accept it must now stop granting new licences for arms exports to Saudia Arabia, for possible use in the conflict in Yemen pending any application to the Court of Appeal for a stay.
“The government will now have to reconsider whether to suspend existing export licenses and reconsider its decision to continue to grant licences. Our client hopes the government will reconsider quickly and will decide that no further licences should be granted.”
Amnesty International also welcomed the ruling as “a rare piece of good news” for the people of Yemen. “During four years of devastating war the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen, flattening homes, schools and hospitals in indiscriminate air strikes,” said the group’s director of strategic litigation, Lucy Claridge.
“This is the first time that a UK court has acknowledged the risks of continuing to lavish Saudi Arabia with military equipment for use in Yemen. We welcome this judgment as a major step towards preventing further bloodshed.”
The weapon categories included for UK arms exports since the bombing of Yemen began include approximately £2.7 billion worth of ML10 licences for aircraft, helicopters and drones. There was also £1.9 billion worth of ML4 licences for grenades, bombs, missiles and countermeasures.
There have also been a number of open issue export licences approved to Saudi Arabia. According to CAAT, these include many of the bombs and missiles used in the war.
“There is no way of knowing how many bombs have been exported or the value of these exports as they are not published, but it does mean that the real total is likely to be significantly higher,” CAAT added.
Ross Greer MSP, external affairs spokesperson for the Scottish Greens said: “This is a stinging defeat for the UK government and their obsession with arming the brutal Saudi regime. When fragments of a British-made bomb were recovered from the wreckage of a Yemeni school bus, which had been carrying forty two children, the Tories shrugged their shoulders and the arms sales to Saudi Arabia continued.
“A British court may have called a halt to this obscenity but it doesn’t wash the blood off the UK government’s hands.”
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said that ministers would seek leave to appeal. “This judgment is not about whether the decisions themselves were right or wrong, but whether the process in reaching those decisions was correct,” the spokesperson added.
This story was updated at 12.42 and 13.51 on 20 June 2019 to add comments from the Scottish Greens and the Department for International Trade, as well as a link to the Court of Appeal’s ruling. It was updated again at 17.01 to add comments by Liam Fox.