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Explaining the UK arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the ongoing crisis in Yemen

For over five years, Yemen has been locked in a war which has had devastating effects on the country and its citizens. This, alongside the resulting famine and the COVID-19 outbreak, has caused what is frequently referred to as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Conflict in Yemen began shortly after Houthi forces pushed Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee the country, taking control of the capital Sanaa. This came after years of political insecurity across the country in the wake of the passing of power from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to Mr Hadi. The Houthi movement comprises largely of Zaydi Shia Muslims, but thanks to widespread criticism of Mr Hadi, support for the Houthis came from many Yemeni civilians, of both Shia and Sunni backgrounds.

A coalition of nine Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, pledged their support for Mr Hadi and responded with a series of airstrikes starting in March 2015. As per the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), there have been over 100,000 deaths up to October 2019, with 12,000 of those being civilians. It is estimated that 67% of these have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition, thanks to frequent airstrikes and attacks on civilians. Many of these attacks have been deemed to be serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) by the UN and a large number of non-governmental organisations. Amnesty International has identified 41 coalition airstrikes that have violated IHL, causing 512 civilian deaths.

The UK is Saudi Arabia’s second-biggest arms provider, having licensed an estimated £5.3bn worth of arms since the war began. The Government has subcontracted BAE Systems, a British arms company, to provide the coalition with arms, engineers and training. A former BAE technician explained in an interview with Channel 4 that ‘there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky’ in Yemen without BAE Systems. Other former employees explain that, despite not physically dropping bombs, there is British assistance at every stage in Saudi Arabia. As such the war and resulting humanitarian crisis in Yemen is undoubtedly being supported by the UK’s arms deals with the Saudi-led coalition.

Campaign Against Arms Trade brought a case against the former Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox, with the aim of restricting these export licenses, which was ultimately heard by the Court of Appeal in April 2019. They argued that the Secretary of State had not sufficiently considered the high chance of arms sold by the UK being used to commit breaches of IHL against Yemeni citizens. The court said that the sales of arms were not lawful, as ministers had not fulfilled Criterion 2c of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. This requires that the Government does not grant a licence if there is a ‘clear risk’ of the arms being used to violate IHL. As they had not sufficiently assessed the historical breaches of IHL by Saudi Arabia, it was decided that the ministers involved could not be sure that there was no ‘clear risk’. As such, it was decided that all licences were to be reviewed and that no new licences could be approved.

In a statement to the House of Commons on 7 July 2020, Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss announced that the Government would resume exporting arms to Saudi Arabia as before and that they would resume approving new licence applications once more, starting to clear the backlog of those built over the past year. To justify this position, she explained that historic breaches of IHL committed by Saudi Arabia were ‘isolated incidents’, and as such had no impact on their ‘genuine intent and capacity to comply with IHL’. The Government seems to be keen to continue to grant new licences due to the large number of jobs provided and huge revenue generated by companies like BAE Systems.

In a response to this statement, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, asserted that it seemed the Government was paying little regard to international law, and that they were attempting to ‘rewrite history’. Andrew Smith from Campaign Against Arms Trade has expressed the campaign’s disappointment with the Government’s decision and has confirmed that they will continue to do what they can to bring forward a legal challenge against the Government.

This recent statement from Liz Truss demonstrates clearly that, despite huge opposition, the Government is reluctant to make any changes to its position on the export of arms to the Saudi-led coalition. It is evident that they are trying to downplay their substantial role in the ongoing crisis in Yemen. A Campaign Against the Arms Trade poll in 2017 showed that 62% of the people surveyed deemed selling arms to Saudi Arabia ‘unacceptable’. With this clear lack of support from the public, a Court of Appeal judgement condemning their actions, and evidence of multiple breaches of IHL by the coalition, it is surprising that the Government has remained so steadfast in its position, even through multiple changes of leadership.












R (on the application of Campaign Against Arms Trade) v Secretary of State for International Trade [2019] EWCA Civ 1020, [2019] 1 WLR 5765

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