UK sold £1bn of arms to Saudi Arabia despite human rights violations in Yemen
The extraordinary increase in UK arms sales occurred between July and September under five government-backed licenses, documents from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills show.
The government documents also reveal that in the three months leading up to July, UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the same type of munitions amounted to £9 million (US$12.75 million).
The dramatic surge in UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia has been decried by Amnesty International (AI) UK, which warns of grave human rights violations in Yemen.
“These figures are deeply worrying, showing that the UK continued to dispatch huge amounts of weaponry to Saudi Arabia despite overwhelming evidence that the Saudi war machine was laying waste to Yemeni homes, schools and hospitals,” the group’s head of policy and government affairs Allan Hogarth said.
“As officials were signing off these sales, hundreds – possibly thousands – of Yemeni civilians were dying in a terrifying barrage of indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes in the country.”
Hogarth said the law is unequivocal in the context of the Saudi-led airstrikes.
“Any Saudi attack, whether deliberate or not, that fails to adequately protect civilians is a violation of international law,” he said.
“And our obligations are equally clear – as a major supplier of Saudi Arabia’s weaponry, the UK is legally obliged to suspend arms exports.”
Hogarth dismissed government rhetoric on the UK’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia as “evasive,” and warned that Britain is flogging weapons to the Gulf state in full knowledge that they will be deployed to kill Yemeni civilians.
He called upon the British government to face up to the reality of Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen, “immediately suspend export licenses” for further UK arms sales to the Gulf state, and preside over a full inquiry into allegations of grave violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen.
Violations of humanitarian international law
Conflict resolution group Saferworld also condemned the spike in sales, stressing that Saudi-led airstrikes had hit civilian-populated areas in Yemen.
“The day after the prime minister [David Cameron] claimed to be ‘trying to encourage a political process in Yemen’ and declared ‘there is no military solution in Yemen’, official figures reveal that in just the three months July to September, the government approved the sale of over £1 billion worth of bombs for the use of the Royal Saudi Air Force,” a spokesperson for the group told the Guardian.
“This is the same air force that has bombed hospitals, schools, markets, grain warehouses, ports and a displaced persons camp and helped to turn Yemen into a living nightmare.”
In December, legal analysis commissioned by Amnesty and Saferworld revealed that the British government is breaching domestic, EU and international law by continuing to supply arms to Saudi Arabia.
The analysis was conducted by prominent international law experts Philippe Sands QC, Professor Andrew Clapham and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh. The lawyers, who work for London-based law firm Matrix Chambers, concluded that the UK government is violating its duty under Britain’s Consolidated Criteria on arms exports, the EU Common Position on Arms Exports and the global Arms Trade Treaty by allowing transfers of weapons and other military wares to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen.
Prime Minister David Cameron defended Britain’s arms trade with the Saudis on Monday, arguing the UK has the most robust export controls on weapons in the world.
“In terms of our arms exports I think we have some of the most stringent controls anywhere in the world and I’ll always make sure they’re properly operated,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that the work done by Saudi Arabia is properly targeted and it’s right that we should do that. We’re working with them and others on behalf of the legitimate government on Yemen.”
'Suspend UK licenses'
However, Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn called for increased scrutiny of Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday as the humanitarian situation in Yemen continues to worsen.
Benn wrote to the foreign affairs, defense, development and business committees, calling for the re-establishment of the House of Commons committee on arms export controls.
The watchdog was previously responsible for monitoring Britain’s arms sales, but became dormant in May 2015 after its chair stepped down.
“Given the growing number of reports and public concern, I believe the case for a full and detailed assessment of whether there is a clear risk that British weapons might be used in violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen is now overwhelming,” Benn said.
“I hope therefore that the new committee will urgently consider examining the government’s approach to these licences.”
RT asked the government whether it plans to suspend further licenses authorizing the sale of UK arms to Saudi Arabia amid allegations that the Saudi-led coalition’s aerial bombing of Yemen is violating international humanitarian law.
A spokesperson for the government declined to specify and went on to defended the Tories' oversight of UK arms sales.
“We operate one of the most rigorous and transparent arms export control regimes in the world with each licence application assessed on a case by case basis, taking account of all relevant information, to ensure compliance with our legal obligations. No licence is issued if it does not meet these requirement," the spokesperson said.
“We regularly raise with Saudi Arabian-led coalition and the Houthis, the need to comply with international humanitarian law (IHL) in Yemen. We monitor the situation carefully and have offered the Saudi authorities advice and training in this area."