The UK is ‘on the wrong side’ of the law over arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Protesters outside Department for Business with 'stop arming Saudi' banner
Andrea Needham

A damning report from the House of Lords has concluded that the British government is ‘on the wrong side’ of the law over arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The report by the International Relations Select Committee said:

Although conclusive evidence is not yet available, we assess that it is that it is narrowly on the wrong side: given the volume and type of arms being exported to the Saudi-led coalition, we believe they are highly likely to be the cause of significant civilian casualties in Yemen, risking the contravention of international humanitarian law.


This came as no surprise to one long-term campaigner against weapons sales. Sam Walton was acquitted in 2017 of attempting to disarm military jets being sold to Saudi Arabia. He tweeted:

The UK has licensed almost £5bn of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia since the Yemen war started in March 2015. The UN has accused Saudi Arabia of launching “indiscriminate attacks” on Yemen. Since early 2016, an estimated 56,000 Yemeni people have been killed. The UN has warned that half the entire Yemeni population, some 14 million people, are at risk of famine.

No concerns from government

But the government has pushed ahead with arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the face of mounting evidence over the use of British weapons against Yemeni civilians. In 2016, then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson said in relation to Saudi weapons sales:

We do not believe there has been a clear risk of breach of humanitarian law in respect of the use of those weapons.

And in January 2019, current foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt was accused of making misleading statements about UK export controls. He claimed that controls had been strengthened in 2014 under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. But Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle pointed out that a report by the Committees on Arms Export Controls had in fact found “a substantive weakening of UK arms export controls.”

“Assurances” dismissed

The latest Lords report dismissed the “assurances” the government claims to have received from Saudi Arabia over the use of British weapons in Yemen:

We are deeply concerned that the Saudi-led coalition’s misuse of their weaponry is causing—whether deliberately or accidentally—loss of civilian life. Relying on assurances by Saudi Arabia and Saudi-led review processes is not an adequate way of implementing the obligations for a risk-based assessment set out in the Arms Trade Treaty.

Welcoming the report, Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) told Middle East Eye that:

UK-made fighter jets and bombs have played a central role in the bombardment and the destruction [of Yemen]. Despite the atrocities and abuses that have been committed, the government’s position has been to push arms sales at all costs.

Legal case strengthened?

In 2017, CAAT brought a judicial review against the government over arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The group claimed that there was a serious risk that British weapons would be used to violate international humanitarian law in Yemen. But the judges, after hearing ‘secret evidence’, concluded that the sales were lawful, and the judicial review was dismissed.

However, the court of appeal has recently granted CAAT permission to appeal the judgement. The court will hear the case from 9-11 April. This report from the Lords can only strengthen the hand of those trying to stop this bloody trade.

Featured image via Campaign Against Arms Trade/Flickr

Get involved

  • Support CAAT.
  • Take part in one of the upcoming events against the arms trade.
  • Sign the petition against arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

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