In June 2016 a high court hearing in London gave permission for a judicial review into whether arms sales to the country breach national and European arms export laws. The hearing will take place on February 7 2017.
Various NGO’s and legal opinions have concluded that the UK government is breaking national, international and EU law by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the conflict in Yemen.
In spite of this, Saudi Arabia has been identified as a “priority market” for the UK. The UK licenses and arms to Saudi Arabia, including exports of combat aircraft and air-delivered bombs that have exceeded £3.7 billion.
Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading a military coalition in Yemen, in support of the now exiled internationally recognised President Hadi. The coalition aims to target a Houthi-led rebellion, but has led to thousands of civilian casualties. The UN has estimated that more than 4,000 people have been killed by Saudi-led coalition air-strikes, 60 percent of which are civilians.
The high court case urges the government to suspend all current export licenses to Saudi Arabia, including those that are yet to be granted, if there is a “clear risk” that those weapons will be used to break international humanitarian law. Licensing is overseen by the department of Business Innovation and Skills.
UK government ministers have repeatedly argued that the UK arms trade is thoroughly scrutinized and regulated, but campaigners claim the weapons have been and continue to be used to commit human rights abuses, particularly in Yemen. In addition to this, a UN report found 119 human rights violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition. The violations include attacks on civilians, hospitals, schools, homes and markets, and damage is reported to be extensive.
In September 2016, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee made a number of recommendations for measures which could be introduced to make the system of licensing considerably more transparent than is currently the case. However, no progress has since been made.
In December 2016, Defence Secretary Michal Fallon confirmed that UK-made cluster munitions sold to Saudi-Arabia in the 1980s had been used in the fight against the Houthis in Yemen. Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a signatory of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the United Kingdom is. The United Kingdom is thus prohibited to: develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions. Neither can they assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.
The Convention is clear and unequivocal. As such, the United Kingdom must urge Saudi Arabia to refrain use of cluster munitions with immediate effect. Not only to prevent more loss of innocent life in the poorest country in the Middle East, but also to set a precedent. The UK cannot and should continue not to break international arms treaties. Such a breach not only weakens the UKs position as an international actor, as well as the impact and significance of current and future arms treaties. Moreover, the United Kingdom cannot be seen to set a precedent that other countries and states might follow.