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Secret Saudi Arms Sales Court Hearing

Anti-arms trade campaigners say UK-made weapons are contributing to thousands of civilian deaths in the devastating Middle Eastern war

Campaigners from Amnesty International carrying a batch of five giant dummy missiles to Downing Street in London. Photo: Yui Mok/PA

Secret High Court Session on ‘Illegal’ Arms Sales to Saudi ArabiaAs Top Government Lawyer Downplays War Crimes Claims

Anti-arms trade campaigners argue UK-made weapons are contributing to thousands of civilian deaths in the devastating Middle Eastern war

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A landmark legal challenge against UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia concluded on Thursday at the High Court, shrouded in secrecy and preceded by “horrific” comments from the Government’s top lawyer. 

Non-profit group Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) is challenging government-approved weapons sales to the Gulf state, which is currently waging war on Yemen. CAAT claims that UK arms have been involved in multiple breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen, following billions in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. 

Since the conflict began in 2014, the UK has sold more than £23 billion of arms to the Saudi regime. Over the same period, 8,983 civilians have been killed in air strikes on civilian targets by the Saudi coalition, with bomb strikes hitting hospitals, weddings, funerals and key infrastructure.

The civil war began when Islamist Houthi rebels took over the capital city Sanaa and the Government. Saudi Arabia soon joined the previous government’s resistance, leading a naval and air blockade that contributed to widespread starvation, human rights groups said. The situation in Yemen has been described as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world.

On the last day of open hearings in London, the Government’s lawyer, Sir James Eadie, argued that harm to civilians didn’t require “anxious scrutiny” because the people facing harm in Yemen are not under UK jurisdiction, according to CAAT. 

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He also argued there weren’t many credible allegations of international humanitarian law – despite a UN panel of experts finding there are hundreds, CAAT reported.

Sir James said the figures should be treated with caution as panel members “will not have the relevant expertise and experience” needed to assess human rights violations. This is despite the panel being made up of military and international human rights law experts, including former senior military advisor Professor Charles Garraway.

The court became a closed session on the afternoon of 1 February, with Campaign Against Arms Trade lawyers denied access to the “sensitive” material discussed. CAAT has to be represented by special advocates with security clearance during this final stage of the case.

[The Government’s lawyer] argued that harm to civilians didn’t require “anxious scrutiny” because the people facing harm in Yemen are not under UK jurisdiction

CAAT spokesperson

Emily Apple, spokesperson for CAAT, said: “It is alarming that there appears to be so much closed evidence that we are not allowed to see, including even the figure for the ‘small number’ of possible international humanitarian law violations the Government claims to have identified. 

“This means we are not able to analyse what’s being said and the people in Yemen are prevented from knowing exactly how this Government justifies the arms sales that have devastated their lives. This is not justice.”

She claimed the “horrific” remarks made by Sir James to the court on 1 February “reflect the Government’s utter contempt for Yemeni lives”.

Apple added that the Government lawyer’s line suggested it believed “it doesn’t matter that Yemeni people are being killed because they don’t have the same legal protections that require scrutiny under British law”. 

“His comments also made it clear that the UK Government trusts the Saudi Government more than it does eminent UN experts and renowned human rights organisations collating evidence on the ground,” she said.

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“Whatever the outcome of this case, it’s important to remember that this Government has made a decision to put profit before lives, and we will keep doing everything we can, in solidarity with the Yemeni people, to stop these sales.”

The Attorney General’s office refused to comment on its lawyer’s remarks during the legal proceedings. CAAT is expecting a judgment in two to six months. 

Asked whether the Government stands by Sir James’ comments on Yemeni deaths and why Thursday’s court hearing excluded CAAT, a Government spokesperson said: “We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”

Government figures claim that all export licences for arms are assessed in accordance with strict licensing criteria. 

On 7 July 2020, the Government took over arms licensing decisions again, as required by the Court of Appeal. A revised methodology for whether to approve sales considers whether there is a clear risk the equipment might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law. 

UK arms companies provide the Royal Saudi air force Typhoon and Tornado aircrafts and bombs such as the Paveway IV. A recent Oxfam report found that UK/US-armed air strikes were responsible for a quarter of attacks on civilians.

CAAT is represented by Leigh Day in court.

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