Britain is to resume selling arms to Saudi Arabia despite assessing that the country could be using them to commit war crimes, the government has announced.
International trade secretary Liz Truss said on Tuesday that the government had completed a review of how arms export licences were granted in order to comply with an earlier court ruling suspending sales.
Ms 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”.
“The incidents which have been assessed to be possible violations of IHL occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons,” the statement said.
The statement 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.”
Human rights groups branded the government’s approach “deeply cynical” and said the policy was “almost beyond comprehension”. The announcement from the international trade secretary comes just a day after the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK would introduce a “sanctions regime that will target people who have committed the gravest human rights violations” and that “Global Britain will be an even stronger force for good in the world, in the years ahead”.
In March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen against Houthi rebels, who are fighting the internationally recognised government and control large swathes of territory. But humanitarian groups and the UN quickly accused Saudi-led forces of breaching international humanitarian law, including bombing schools, hospitals, weddings and food infrastructure.
The conflict has cost an estimated 100,000 lives, with 80 per cent of Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance. The United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has said “the crisis is of cataclysmic proportions”.
In June 2019, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government had acted unlawfully by licencing the sale of UK-made arms to Saudi forces for use in Yemen without assessing whether incidents in the conflict had amounted to breaches of international humanitarian law.
Since the bombing of Yemen started in March 2015 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 ordinance.
In a notice to exporters published on Tuesday, the government 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.”
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade described the government’s move as “disgraceful and morally bankrupt” and said that 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. We will be considering this new decision with our lawyers, and will be exploring all options available to challenge it,” he 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. 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”.
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said: “This is a deeply cynical move to restart business as usual when it comes to Saudi arms sales.
“How the Government can seriously describe a five-year Saudi-led aerial assault on Yemen which has seen numerous examples of civilians killed in schools, hospitals, funeral halls and market places as a set of ‘isolated incidents’ is almost beyond comprehension.
“This seems like an attempt to rewrite history and disregard international law. The UK is bypassing its obligations under the international arms control framework. Its approach to this decision has effectively rendered our own protections meaningless.”
Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam, described the decision as “nothing short of cruel”.
“It’s shocking that less than a week after signing up to a UN Security Council resolution for a global ceasefire, the UK government is announcing a resumption of weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. The UK should not licence arms to a country that has led a coalition in their bombardment of Yemen over more than five years,” he said.
“Even before the coronavirus hit, Yemen was already facing the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis and had seen its hospitals and clinics decimated in the conflict. It’s nothing short of cruel that the government should take the decision to restart sales to Saudi Arabia at such a time.”
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, one of the party’s leadership candidates, described the decision as “jaw-dropping” and accused ministers of “putting profit before lives”.
“It’s time the government stood firm for the values we believe in like human rights and international law, instead of allowing them to be sold off to the highest bidder,” she added.
Fabian Hamilton, Labour shadow minister for peace and disarmament 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.”
A government spokesperson said: “The government has retaken the licensing decisions as required by the Court of Appeal. All existing and new applications for Saudi Arabia for possible use in the conflict in Yemen will be assessed against the revised methodology which considers whether there is a clear risk the equipment might be used in the commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law.
“The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and 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.”