UK to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite humanitarian concerns

A bombed building in Yemen, site of the "world's worst humanitarian crisis", Source: Almigdad Mojalli (via Wikimedia Commons)
The UK is set to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a move which has been met with criticisms that Saudi Arabia may use them to violate international humanitarian law in Yemen.

By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss has said in a statement to Parliament that the UK will resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

This has caused controversy from campaigners, who raise concerns that the arms will be used on civilians in the conflict in Yemen, which is being called by some, “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.

In June of last year, the Court of Appeals ordered an internal review to assess if Saudi Arabia was violating international law in its involvement in Yemen. The ruling, which declared the sales unlawful, also suspended granting new licenses to sell arms in Saudi Arabia, though it did not halt already existing exports.

The subsequent review found that there was “no clear risk” of future serious breaches of international human rights law and that whilst there were cases of possible violations, these were “isolated incidents”.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade said in a statement that;

“The evidence shows a clear pattern of heinous and appalling breaches of international humanitarian law”. and 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?”

Yet, Liz Truss said in the statement that the incidents “occurred at different times, in different circumstances, and for different reasons and the conclusion is that these are isolated incidents”.

“Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with international humanitarian law”, she said. “On that basis, I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation.”

What’s happening in Yemen?

The UK Government is supporting the Saudi-led coalition intervening in a civil war that has been ongoing in Yemen since 2015. The coalition backs the Yemeni government, which has been combating a long-running Houthi insurgency.

Thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict, with the United Nations verifying at least 7,700 civilian deaths since 2015 – 60% of which were found to be due to the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing runs.

The conflict has also displaced millions of Yemeni citizens, who have been rendered homeless or starving, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has reportedly further worsened life for the citizens of Yemen.

This has led to the situation in Yemen being widely recognised as the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

How is the UK involved?

The UK has reportedly licensed £5.3bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015, with British officials also providing military advice, including bombing targets and tactics, to the Saudi-led coalition.

The government has also been accused of “rank hypocrisy” after making the announcement to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia less than 24 hours after the government imposed sanctions on 20 Saudi officials related to the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Labour stated it would be pressing Ms. Truss to justify the decision to parliament, and shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said in a statement that it was “at the very least a case of mixed messages, undermining the government’s claim to be human rights defenders.” adding that;

“Britain should be working flat out to bring this terrible war to an end, not selling the arms that continue to fuel it.”

Andrew Smith, a spokesman for Campaign Against the Arms Trade, said: “We will be considering this decision with our lawyers, and will be exploring all options available to challenge it.”

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