The UK government likes to claim that its arms export controls are among the most robust in the world, but a recent verdict in the High Court has exposed the total lack of any care and attention the government has given to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We interviewed Andrew Smith from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, who brought the case against the government.
The historic judgement was handed down on 20th June as a result of an appeal brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade, with additional input from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Rights Watch UK and Oxfam. After a four year legal battle, the government has been told it broke the law by granting licenses to sell arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. During that four year period, UK-made bombs, missiles and fighter planes have played a central role in the killing of tens of thousands of people.
The United Nations has stated that the Yemen death toll could reach nearly a quarter of a million by the end of next year in what it describes as ‘humanity’s greatest preventable disaster’. Saudi Arabia has performed more than 20,000 air strikes since the start of the conflict, with numerous accounts of war crimes – the targeting of civilian infrastructure, bombing of schools, markets, and even funerals and weddings.
Although the case was specific to arms sold to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, it found that the government had acted unlawfully and irrationally and it will force the government to reassess all previous sales and suspend current licences relating to Saudi Arabia.
In Prime Ministers Questions on 26th June following the verdict, Theresa May said that no new licenses would be granted, although she also said the government was seeking to appeal the judgement. It’s of no surprise that the government will attempt an appeal, as BAE Systems and other arms companies have billions of pounds of business with Saudi Arabia and great influence within government, and there is a long history of close relationship with the Saudi despotic regime.
As the government will have used similar processes for other deals, there is an important precedent set by this verdict, and it may also have repercussions across Europe due to the “common position” agreements between European countries of arms sales. Knowing that UK arms sales were not only immoral, but actually illegal may also fuel bolder direct action from activists, especially DSEI arms fair due to take place in London during September.