UK Government urged to follow President Biden and end arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Politicians, human rights groups and charities have urged the UK Government to follow a shift in US foreign policy and stop selling arms, including smart bombs made in Scotland, to Saudi Arabia for use in war-torn Yemen.

President Biden announced an end to American support for Saudi-led offensives in Yemen last week, as part of a reshaping of foreign policy.

He said the conflict in Yemen – which has killed more than 100,000 Yemenis and displaced eight million – had “created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” that had to end.

But the UK Government has refused to join the US in suspending arms sales to the Saudis, which include smart bombs fitted with laser-guided systems made in Fife. 

 The UK Government told The Ferret it is trying to secure a political solution to end Yemen’s conflict, and that it regularly raises the importance of human rights with all parties, including the Saudi-led coalition.

‘Arms dealers’

However, critics say the refusal of UK Government to join the US in ending military support for the Saudis may prolong the conflict for Yemeni civilians suffering in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Scottish Green party also condemned the Scottish Government for directly funding “arms dealers fuelling the war”.

Last week Joe Biden said in his first foreign policy speech as president that the US was “ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales”.

As well as freezing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the US plans to name a special envoy to Yemen, to put more pressure on warring parties to make peace.

Former US president Donald Trump made arms sales to Saudi Arabia an integral part of his foreign policy. He argued they were necessary to counter Iran and to boost jobs in US weapons manufacturing.

In December the Trump administration told the US Congress it intended to sell nearly $760 million in precision bombs to Saudi Arabia. 

These included 7000 Paveway IV smart bombs of the type made by US arms firm Raytheon which has a factory in Glenrothes.

President Biden has now paused US sales indefinitely and critics have called for the UK to follow America’s lead.

Denisa Delic, head of UK influencing at Save the Children, said that as Britain is the current president of UN Security Council, it has the “opportunity and responsibility to prioritise peace in Yemen”. 

“It is unacceptable that British-made bombs run the risk of breaching international humanitarian law in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” Delic added.

“The UK should end its military support for the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition, urgently push for a new ceasefire at the security council, and redouble efforts to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. Children’s lives depend on it.”

“The civil war in Yemen is the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world and is nothing short of heart-breaking. The Biden administration now recognise this and have halted their backing for offensive support.”

Douglas Chapman MP

Douglas Chapman, SNP MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, said: “Despite pledges from the UK Government to work on a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, their actions speak louder than words as they continue to grant licences to supply arms and military support to Saudi Arabia. 

“The civil war in Yemen is the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world and is nothing short of heart-breaking. The Biden administration now recognise this and have halted their backing for offensive support.”

Chapman said the SNP would pressurise the UK Government to “step up to its international responsibilities” and join with the US. A suspension in UK arm sales, he argued, would send a “clear signal that a safe space must be found for intensive peace talks”.

Emma Cockburn, Scotland coordinator for Campaign Against Arms Trade, said Westminster has “prioritised profit over human lives” in a move she described as “disgraceful”.

“Johnson and his government refusing to follow in the footsteps of their closest allies and stop fuelling the relentless bombardment of Yemen is an example of how isolated the UK government are willing to become to keep the arms flowing to Riyadh,” Cockburn added.

She continued: “Yesterday’s immoral decision only stands to benefit arms dealers like BAE Systems and Raytheon, who have already sold over a billion pounds of arms since sales to Saudi resumed last year, and the UK politicians who act in their interests.”

‘Extremely disappointing’

Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s military, security and police programme director, said it was “extremely disappointing” to see the UK Government “digging in still deeper on the issue of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia”.

Feeley-Sprague added: “It continues to be a matter of international shame to see UK Government ministers and officials ignoring or downplaying overwhelming evidence of the Saudi-led military coalition’s indiscriminate aerial assaults on Yemeni schools, hospitals, funeral halls and market places.

“Despite James Cleverly repeating the mantra about the UK taking its arms export controls responsibilities ‘seriously’, the truth is that this shameful chapter in British history demonstrates we desperately need a thorough overhaul of the UK’s failing arms control system.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The UK operates one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world. The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and rigorously assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.

“We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.”

The UK Government has committed over £1bn in aid to the Yemen since the conflict began in 2015.

Raytheon, which makes laser systems for Paveway IV bombs, employs 700 people in Fife and is opening a second high-tech facility in Livingston. The company has estimated it contributes about £130m a year to the Scottish economy.

However Paveway IV smart bombs have been linked to alleged war crimes in Yemen, as reported by The Ferret.

The export of arms is the responsibility of the UK Government, and we expect them to properly police such exports and to properly investigate any concerns raised.

Scottish Government

Scottish Enterprise has offered finanicial backing through business grants, a move that has been regularly criticised.

There have been repeated calls for the UK Government to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and in 2019 Campaign Against Arms Trade won a legal battle when the court of appeal ruled the UK Government had broken the law by selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

In response to the judgment the UK Government initially suspended new arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But ministers resumed them last year after an official review concluded there had only been a few airstrikes in Yemen that breached humanitarian law.

A few days later, however, it emerged the Ministry of Defence had logged more than 500 Saudi air raids in possible breach of international law in Yemen.

Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer said: “If Boris Johnson wants to help end the immense suffering of Yemen’s people, then he must follow President Biden’s example.

“The SNP are far from blameless here though. While their MPs condemn UK military support for the Saudi coalition, agencies under the control of the Scottish Government directly fund and support the very arms dealers fuelling the war.

Greer continued: “​Many of the weapons used to commit terrible atrocities were made by companies supported directly by the Scottish Government’s enterprise agency.

“In the six years since the bombardment and blockage began, millions of pounds of public money has been given to multinational arms dealers such as Raytheon. If the Scottish Government wants to live up to its own rhetoric on human rights, it must end these handouts immediately.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The export of arms is the responsibility of the UK Government, and we expect them to properly police such exports and to properly investigate any concerns raised.

“The Scottish Government does not provide funding for the manufacture of munitions – either directly or via Scottish Enterprise.

“The support provided is focused on helping firms to diversify and develop non-military applications for their technology and ensure Scotland continues to benefit from the thousands of jobs in the defence, aerospace and shipbuilding sectors.

“Human rights due diligence checks have now been fully rolled out and are a normal part of the Scottish Enterprise application process.”

Raytheon has been asked to comment.

Image thanks to iStock/dzika_mrowka

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