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Turning a Deadly Blind Eye: Government Forced to Court Again Over Its Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

UK ministers continue to licence arms for sale to Saudi Arabia when there is a clear risk that they will be used to kill innocent Yemeni civilians, report Bonyan Jamal and Molly Mulready

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in April 2020. Photo: Frank Augstein/PA Images

Turning a Deadly Blind EyeGovernment Forced to Court Again Over Its Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

UK ministers continue to licence arms for sale to Saudi Arabia when there is a clear risk that they will be used to kill innocent Yemeni civilians, report Bonyan Jamal and Molly Mulready

The Foreign Secretary recently met with Muhammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

It is not clear whether they discussed the Saudis’ bombing of a funeral in Yemen, which killed 86 people and injured 550 others; or the four bombs dropped in quick succession on a family home, killing parents and children as they ran to escape. What is clear is that both of those incidents will cause difficulties for the Government as it tries, again, to defend itself in the High Court against allegations that it is illegally licensing arms for sale to Saudi Arabia. 

Mwatana, a Yemeni human rights organisation, has provided the High Court with documentary evidence of patterns of Saudi/United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led coalition attacks on Yemeni civilians, informed by field visits in the immediate aftermath of air strikes and interviews with victims and witnesses.

The evidence shows repeated harm to civilians throughout almost seven years of conflict, including 20,000 civilian deaths and Yemen at the brink of famine – children there are dying from starvation-induced organ failure. 

Mwatana issued its first report on the civilian impact of airstrikes in 2015 and has consistently documented it ever since, observing the collapse of the economy; the destruction of health facilities; and the acute dangers of going to school. It also asked world leaders to stop fuelling the war with weapons sales. UN bodies added their voices but, although the civilian death toll mounted, the UK maintained support for Saudi Arabia – including through lucrative arms sales.

US President Joe Biden’s announcement that America would pause “relevant” arms sales to Saudi Arabia was a positive step; as was the European Parliament’s vote urging an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, noting that exporters fuelling the conflict in Yemen were breaking the law. 

British MPs expressed support for Biden’s approach, including Conservative Tobias Ellwood, the former Minister for the Middle East and now a prominent advocate for an end to arms sales. He recently observed that Britain was “happy to sell these weapons systems to other people” but would then “get caught out because they don’t use them well”, explaining that there was a deliberate decision of the Government to keep out of the coalition’s operations room so that “we were not involved or could not have our fingers associated with any of the decisions that were made”. He referenced the “appalling atrocities” that have taken place – on both sides of the conflict. 

Ellwood isn’t wrong – there have been atrocities; and there have been incidents which look very much like war crimes: something of relevance to the law the Government must adhere to when deciding whether to licence arms for sale to Saudi Arabia. That law states that, where there is a clear risk that the weapons might (only “might”) be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law, a licence must not be granted. 

On 8 October 2016, the coalition bombed the Great Hall in Sana’a whilst a funeral took place. Mwatana staff visited the scene the next morning. They documented the deaths of 84 people and the injury of 550 others.

One of the injured was Esam Al-Rawishan, a 25-year-old man who said that he heard a plane flying overhead, but “it never even occurred to me that they would bomb a funeral hall”. Mwatana staff walked through the scene of the attack, seeing dried blood and wanton destruction in what had been a packed hall. It was well known that a funeral was taking place there – it had even been publicised on Facebook.

The Saudis claimed that Yemeni forces said there were military targets there and insisted the air strike be carried out immediately. We know that there were military personnel present, but the obvious presence of 1,500 civilians in the same place should have precluded the bombing. International humanitarian law prohibits such disproportionate harm to civilians. 

Four years later, on 14 February 2020, a bomb hit the house of a civilian man in Al Saidah village, killing family members and wounding children. The rest of the family and neighbours were running away when a second bomb hit the perimeter of the house, killing both family members trying to escape and people who had rushed to help. A third bomb hit a group of civilians who were by then trying to hide in trees to the north of the family home; and as other civilians ran and tried to hide together, a fourth bomb hit where they were hiding, though it did not explode. Those four bombs dropped on the same civilian site, just minutes between each, resulted in the deaths of 32 people – the vast majority of them children and women; and the injury of 21 others, including 12 children. It is difficult to understand how anyone could argue that this was lawful. 

These airstrikes are not untypical. Their details are in the public domain. The Government cannot credibly say that it is unaware. Yet, UK ministers continue licencing arms for sale to Saudi Arabia when there is a clear risk that they will be used again in similar incidents.

It may be that we are saturated with bad news, human suffering, deaths, injuries, starvation and devastation and so we cannot bear the intolerable scenes of Yemen – but the Government has a moral obligation not to look away. Boris Johnson, in particular, has a moral obligation not to. He, and his Government, have repeatedly made a choice to continue arming Saudi Arabia, with the most terrible consequences for the people of Yemen. 

Bonyan Jamal is a Yemen-based lawyer and an accountability officer with Mwatana for Human Rights. Molly Mulready is a London-based lawyer, formerly of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where she advised the Foreign Secretary on the export of arms to Saudi Arabia

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