UK faces new legal challenge over arms sales to Saudi Arabia

By Jessica Murray

Campaigners have filed for a judicial review of the UK government’s decision to renew arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said the weapons would “fuel destruction and prolong the conflict” in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has employed widespread bombing in a war that has killed thousands of civilians.

Last month, a United Nations report said countries arming parties involved in the conflict could be “aiding and assisting” war crimes, and said there had been “documented patterns” of serious international humanitarian law violations.

In a June 2019 case, also brought by CAAT, the court of appeal ruled British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful and said ministers had illegally signed off on arms exports without properly assessing the risk to civilians.

It ordered the then international trade secretary, Liam Fox, to hold an immediate review of at least £4.7bn-worth of arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the government suspended new arms sales to the country.

However, in July this year the government announced it was resuming arms sales to Saudi Arabia, after a review concluded there had been only “isolated incidents” of airstrikes in Yemen that breached humanitarian law.

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24m people – 80% of Yemen’s population - require some form of humanitarian or protection assistance.

3m people forced to flee their homes.

85,000 -  Save the Children estimate that this number of children under the age of 5 may have died through hunger and malnutrition.

1m cases of cholera in 2017, the largest outbreak of the disease in recent history. 2,200 people died during it. A resurgence of the disease saw more than 137,000 suspected cases and almost 300 deaths in the first three months of 2019.

Over 91,600 fatalities since the conflict started in 2015, as measured by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project.

18,292 civilian casualties, including 8,598 killed 

4,500 military strikes recorded that directly targeted civilians - outlawed by the Geneva conventions. 67% of the deaths caused in these attacks were by the Saudis and their coalition, with Houthis and their allies responsible for over 16%.

19,990 recorded air raids since the conflict began 

£770m - the amount of foreign aid given by Britain in food, medicines and other assistance to civilians over the last half a decade.

£6.2bn - the amount of money Britain has earned in the same period selling arms to the Saudis and their coalition partners.

Zero - despite being 527,970 square kilometres, Yemen has no permanent rivers. Just 2.9% of Yemen’s land is considered to be usable arable land.

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The trade secretary, Liz Truss, said at the time: “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 CAAT, said: “Tens of thousands of people have been killed in this brutal bombardment, yet arms companies have profited every step of the way. These arms sales have only fuelled the destruction and prolonged the conflict. Last year, the court of appeal found that the government has acted illegally, and nothing that we have seen since suggests otherwise.

“The government may think that the widespread destruction of schools, hospitals and homes can be dismissed as ‘isolated incidents’ but we do not. These arms sales are immoral, and we are confident that the court will confirm that the decision to renew them was illegal.”

The UK has licensed the sale of at least £4.7bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the start of the civil war in Yemen in March 2015, but CAAT says the real figure is likely to be higher.

The Department for International Trade has been contacted for comment.