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Saudi Arms Sales: How Much Longer Can the Government Defend Prolonging War in Yemen?

With a Saudi-led coalition continuing to drop bombs on Yemen, campaigners prepare to take the UK Government to court again over its arms sales to the kingdom

Yemenis inspect the site of an alleged Saudi-led airstrike targeting the Houthi rebel-controlled Defence Ministry, in Sanaa, Yemen, on 11 November 2017. Photo: PA Images

SAUDI ARMS SALES How Much Longer Can Government Defend Prolonging the War in Yemen?

With a Saudi-led coalition continuing to drop bombs on Yemen, campaigners prepare to take the UK Government to court again over its arms sales to the kingdom

The death toll in war-torn Yemen has topped more than 100,000, including at least 12,000 civilians – many were killed when bombs were dropped from the sky as they gathered for a wedding, a funeral or even just to go to school.

The United Nations has described it as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world” and yet the UK Government continues to perpetuate the conflict by licensing billions of pounds worth of arms to the Saudi-led coalition that is dropping the bombs.

Last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government had acted unlawfully by approving the arms sales without any assessment as to whether the coalition had breached international humanitarian law. But the ruling was dismissed by the Government in July, with the flow of arms resuming when International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said that more than 500 alleged incidents of war crimes were “isolated” and showed no pattern or trend.

But the issue could soon be heading back to court after one of the UK’s leading arms campaign groups filed for a judicial review of the decision.

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) says that Boris Johnson’s administration has provided “very little information” on how it reached the conclusions it did, including how it decided that there was no pattern of violations.

“Tens of thousands of people have been killed in this brutal bombardment, yet arms companies have profited every step of the way,” CAAT’s Andrew Smith told Byline Times. “These arms sales have only fuelled the destruction and prolonged the conflict. 

“Last year, the Court of Appeal found that the Government had 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.”

Turning Off the Tap on Arms Sales

The Yemen conflict began as a civil war in 2014 when a group of Shiite rebels linked to Iran, known as the Houthis, took control of the capital city of Sana’a and demanded a new government.

When negotiations broke down, the Houthis seized the presidential palace, forcing President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his Government to temporarily resign before fleeing to Saudi Arabia. 

Beginning in March 2015, a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against the Houthis with the backing of the US and UK, which both supplied logistical and intelligence support. In the crossfire has been the country’s civilian population.

Every day, ordinary people are living with the effects of the UK’s £6.5 billion worth of arms provided to the Saudi coalition, which include aircraft, helicopters, drones and bombs.

School buses, funerals, homes and factories have all been bombed, while vital Yemeni infrastructure has been devastated including health, water and sanitation systems resulting in an outbreak of cholera, killing more than 2,500 people, many of them children.

The Saudis also launched a naval and air blockade which severely restricted food and medicine from reaching civilians and exacerbated a famine. The World Food Programme warned that, by the end of 2020, 40% of the population or 3.2 million people will be “severely food insecure”. The United Nations has also said that, if such conflict does not end, “we are nearing an irreversible situation and risk losing an entire generation of Yemen’s young children”. 

The key to ending the war is seen as turning off the tap on arms sales, as well as logistical and targeting support.

Bruce Riedel, of the American think tank, the Brookings Institute, said in April 2016 that, if the US and UK Governments wanted the war to end “it would end tomorrow” as the Royal Saudi Air Force “cannot operate without American and British support”.

A September report from experts at the United Nation’s human rights office also accused the UK – along with Canada, the US, Northern Ireland and Iran – of prolonging the war. It said that, by continuing arms sales, all of these countries show a “blatant disregard” for violations of international humanitarian law and could be “aiding and assisting” war crimes.

But it remains unclear how effective legal action against the UK Government will be.

In the wake of the previous Court of Appeal ruling, the Government was forced to apologise for breaching the court ban three times, with the Trade Secretary admitting that it “is possible more cases will come to light”.

The period considered in the judgement was the time when the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary. It is understood that he personally signed off more than £1 billion worth of the arms licences during that time. In one instance, he provided a licence just two days after the Saudis murdered 14 civilians in a potato factory; in another, he allowed a licence one week after 140 people were killed when a funeral was bombed.

Johnson has defended the arms sales, saying that the UK should do it because otherwise “other countries would happily step in”. He has also said that it should be up to Saudi Arabia to investigate its own breaches of international law.

The Government has consistently defended its arms sales, stating that the UK has “one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world” and that every licence is “rigorously” assessed.

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