The Government’s Excuse forArms Sales to Saudi Arabia Goes Against its Own Policy
Steve Shaw reports on how Trade Secretary Liz Truss’ excuse that there is no ‘pattern of war crimes’ in the Gulf Nation goes against its own export criteria
Billions of pounds’ worth of arms resumed flowing from the UK to Saudi Arabia in July when the Government claimed any Saudi air strikes in Yemen that violated International Humanitarian Law were simply “isolated incidents”. Trade Secretary Liz Truss said at the time it was because there is no “pattern” of war crimes that the arms exports, halted by a June 2019 court ruling, were now free to continue.
But the Government’s Arms Export Committee has heard this is not a valid justification and in fact it goes against its own export criteria. Roy Isbister of the Arms Unit at Saferworld told the committee that the language of Government policy on exports is simply that it will “not grant a licence if there is a clear risk the items might be used for internal repression or in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”. There is no legal requirement for there to be a pattern.
“Even if a pattern were required, there is a pattern,” Isbister continued. “There is the same perpetrator, the same conflict, the same conduct which is airstrikes, the same harm caused and the same international law concerns which are being mentioned by all manner of international experts.”
He added: “Of all the arms transfers from the UK this century, these are the transfers that have had the most significant developmental impact. Yemen as a country has been destroyed. It is suffering from epidemics of cholera and it is on the brink of famine. Famine is a technical term but when you get to famine you are way past catastrophe.”
The ‘Finely Balanced’ Risk
Isbister’s comments during the committee on 14 December echoed those made by Molly Mulready, a former lawyer at the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Mulready told a November meeting of the Human Rights Lawyer Association that she had been on the “wrong side” during her time working for the Government and labelled British arms sales to Saudi Arabia “illegal”. She said the Government’s export policy is based only on whether there is “clear risk” of a single incident, not that there has been a series of incidents.
She explained that in January 2016, when Philip Hammond was Foreign Secretary, the Ministry of Defence tracked 104 alleged “incidents of concern” in Yemen and a third of those were carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. Not a single one was considered a “legitimate military target”. However, the clear risk threshold for the export criteria was advised to be only “finely balanced”.
Ten months later, when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary, the Saudis bombed a funeral hall, killing 140 people and yet Johnson was told the export criteria of clear risk was “extremely finely balanced” and arms sales could continue. “In December 2017, there were 318 possible violations being tracked, I don’t know if it was considered finely balanced or extremely finely balance at that point but it was still considered lawful,” Mulready continued. “They still considered there was no clear risk and so the flow of arms continued. By July 2020 there were 520 incidents being tracked by the Ministry of Defence – that is an average of 1.5 per week over five years.
“And yet after being forced to assess if there was a historic pattern of violations by the Court of Appeal, the Government did so and Liz Truss told Parliament that some of those incidents were being treated as violations of International Humanitarian Law but because they were at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons, the conclusion was that they were isolated incidents and the arms sales can continue. My view on that is it is nonsense, in the true sense of the word, there is no sense to it.”
She added that to resume arms sales, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson would all have to believe the evidence is not strong enough to show there is a “clear risk that British items even might be used in even one serious violation of International Humanitarian Law in the future”.
Since Saudi Arabia pulled together a coalition of nations in the Middle East to begin the bloody bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the UK has sold at least £4.7 billion of arms to the kingdom. This is despite the war causing an untold level of suffering and being branded by the United Nations as “the worst humanitarian crisis” on the planet. The UN has also said countries selling the arms may be “aiding and assisting” in war crimes.
During the period that the UK had halted its arms sales following the Court of Appeal ruling, Liz Truss admitted the Government broke the ban three times and “it is possible more cases will come to light”. Furthermore, during that same period the UK secretly deployed British troops to defend Saudi Arabia’s oil fields without the knowledge of Parliament or the public. Defence minister James Heappey confirmed the deployment and said it was still “ongoing as of late November and had so far cost UK taxpayers £840,360”.
Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman, Research Coordinator, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) told the Arms Export Committee that the Government has made it “implicitly clear” that whatever happens “they will find a reason why it is okay to continue to export arms and maintain the Saudi Air Force”. He added: “When the Saudis know this is the attitude of the UK Government they have no incentive to improve their act.”
In October, CAAT launched a new legal challenge against the UK’s arms exports demanding a full explanation on why the Government believes that the war crimes that have occurred in Yemen are only “isolated incidents”. The Government has maintained that its exports are not illegal and claims the UK has “one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world”.