Britain to Suspend Issuing Arms Licenses to Saudi Arabia

By Michael Wolgelenter and Rick Gladstone

ImageA mock-up of a combat aircraft placed by activists near Parliament in London to protest Britain’s involvement in providing arms to the Saudi government.
A mock-up of a combat aircraft placed by activists near Parliament in London to protest Britain’s involvement in providing arms to the Saudi government.CreditCreditNeil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

By Michael Wolgelenter and Rick Gladstone

LONDON — Britain will temporarily suspend the approval of any new licenses to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, the government said on Thursday, after a court ruled that ministers had acted unlawfully in allowing the sale of weapons when there was a clear possibility they might be used in violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen.

Speaking in Parliament, Liam Fox, the secretary of state for international trade, said although the government disagreed with the court’s decision and would appeal it, the government was obligated to reconsider its decisions.

“We are carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision making,” Mr. Fox said. “While we do this, we will not grant any new licenses for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that might be used in the conflict in Yemen.”

Yemen has been the site of a four-year long war between a Saudi-led coalition, which is backed by the United States, and Houthi rebels, who have the support of Iran, that has devastated the country.

The suspension of British arms sales to the Saudis came as lawmakers in the United States took steps aimed at countering President Trump’s intention to sell $8.1 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Senate voted on Thursday to block the sale, expressing disapproval of Mr. Trump’s emergency declaration that bypassed a requirement in the Arms Export Control Act that Congress approve the weapons sales.

Some Republican senators voted with the 47 Democrats, a reflection of the bipartisan opposition within Congress to Mr. Trump’s close relations with Saudi Arabia.

In the British ruling, a panel of the Court of Appeal judges did not strictly prohibit the government from issuing new licenses but made clear that they felt it had fallen short of its duties. Ministers had failed “in one significant respect,” the judges said, by failing to determine whether the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen had violated international law.

Mr. Fox took issue with that assessment, telling Parliament that the governing party took its export control obligations seriously, applying what he said was a “rigorous and robust” approach to making its decisions.

Britain has licensed the export of more than 4.7 billion pounds, or nearly $6 billion, worth of arms to the Saudi government since its campaign in Yemen started in early 2015, the BBC reported, including fighter jets and precision-guided bombs.

News of the British court ruling and the government’s response was welcomed by rights organizations who have been pressing for greater Saudi accountability over the killings and destruction in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, and who have been urging peace talks under the auspices of the United Nations.

“We celebrate this historic verdict,” the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which brought the appeal to the British court, said in a statement. “But these weapons sales should never have been licensed in the first place.”

Others hoped the ruling would spark broader change in Saudi Arabia’s actions.

“Too many innocent civilians have died in Yemen, and today’s landmark ruling must increase the pressure for all parties to get behind the U.N. peace process and bring this devastating conflict to an end,” said Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who is now chairwoman of the Elders, a London-based rights group founded by Nelson Mandela.

“Saudi Arabia’s own interests would better be served by showing that it can bring peace to its neighbor, rather than continuing with a war that causes so much civilian suffering,” Ms. Robinson said in a statement.

Emily Thornberry, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on foreign affairs, said that she would demand a parliamentary or independent public inquiry into British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Sky News reported.

“And immediately, the government must suspend all arms sales for use in the conflict in Yemen until there has been a full and independent, U.N.-led investigation into all breaches of international law,” she said.

Michael Wolgelenter reported from London, and Rick Gladstone from New York.