The UK government has been condemned after announcing it would resume selling arms to Saudi Arabia despite admitting it has concerns over the potential for war crimes in Yemen.
Liz Truss, secretary of state for international trade, told the House of Commons that sales would restart after an official review concluded there had only been a few airstrikes in Yemen that breached humanitarian law.
Truss said that while some “credible incidents of concern” related to Saudi forces’ conduct had been classified as “possible” breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL), the UK government viewed these as “isolated incidents”.
Critics of the arms trade have condemned the decision. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) accused the government of making a “disgraceful and morally bankrupt decision”. The human rights organisation is now considering legal action.
Truss’s statement comes just over a year after the court of appeal ruled that UK arms sales to the Saudis had been unlawful because ministers had not properly assessed the risk to civilian casualties.
There have been multiple allegations of war crimes levelled at a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen which has bombed schools, hospitals and civilian areas.
The UK government suspended granting new export licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia after last year’s landmark ruling.
This exposes the rank hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy. Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade
CAAT’s Andrew Smith 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.”
He added: “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.”
Smith said CAAT – which took the UK government to court over its arms sales to the Saudis – would consult with its lawyers and explore options to challenge the decision legally.
Comment from @HRW on today's decision by the UK government to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia on the ground that any breaches by the Saudi-coalition in Yemen are 'isolated incidents' pic.twitter.com/2NUf3SwmbJ
— Ben Ward (@Benjamin_P_Ward) July 7, 2020
Rosa Curling of Leigh Day Solicitors , which acted on behalf of CAAT against ministers, said: “Our client welcomes the Secretary of State’s decision to finally accept the judgement handed down by the Court of Appeal and to agree that any decision concerning licence applications must include an assessment of whether IHL breaches have occurred.
“But CAAT is also deeply alarmed by the decision that, despite her new procedure, the Secretary of State has decided licences can continue to be granted and that there is no clear risk the Saudi led coalition in Yemen might use such licensed, military equipment in breach of IHL.
“My client’s view is the evidence remains overwhelming that such a risk does in fact exist. We are considering her decision carefully with our client.”
Truss’s announcement came less than 24 hours after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced sanctions aimed at human rights abusers around the world including Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Raab introduced sanctions against 49 named human rights abusers including a close aide to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
It has also emerged that a Tory MP who had an all-expenses paid trip to Saudi Arabia worth nearly £8,000 has been appointed to scrutinise UK arms sales.
The i newspaper reported that Mark Garnier, who served as an international trade minister under Theresa May until January 2018, was selected this week to chair the Committees on Arms Export Controls.
This committee is an influential group of MPs which examines the rules for Britain’s sales of weaponry.
Photo thanks to Felton Davis under creative commons license.