UK government accused of backing ‘serious violations of international humanitarian law’ via arms exports to Saudi Arabia

Young child looking out over bombed landscape in Yemen
Fréa Lockley

From 9 to 11 April, the UK government faces a judicial review over its continuing export of arms to Saudi Arabia. And it may be supporting ‘serious violations of international humanitarian law’; because these arms have been used by Saudi Arabia in its ongoing war on Yemen.

“The world’s worst humanitarian crisis”

On 7 April, Saudi-led coalition air strikes reportedly hit al-Raei school in Yemen. This strike allegedly killed 11 girls and wounded at least 35 more.

Saudi Arabia has been leading an assault on Yemen since March 2015. Despite tens of thousands of deaths from bombs and thousands more from what the UN has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, war continues.

In 2016, a parliamentary committee stated that, given “the volume of UK-manufactured arms exported to Saudi Arabia”, it’s:

inevitable that any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the coalition have involved arms supplied from the UK. This constitutes a breach of our own export licensing criteria.

It insisted that the UK must “halt” all arms sales pending a full investigation. Yet arms exports continued. As a press release from Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) states, the UK “has licensed £5 billion worth of arms to Saudi forces” since the bombing started in 2015.

CAAT brought this case to the Court of Appeal to overturn a 2017 High Court judgment which allows the UK government to continue to export arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.


In a press release, CAAT’s Andrew Smith said:

UK-made weapons have played a central role in the four year Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen. The results have been catastrophic, with tens of thousands of people killed and vital infrastructure destroyed. We believe that these arms sales are immoral, and are confident that the Court of Appeal will agree that they are unlawful.

The claim calls on the Department for International Trade to suspend all existing licences. It also calls for the UK government to “stop issuing further arms export licences to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen”. 


CAAT’s legal team is led by Martin Chamberlain QC, assisted by Conor McCarthy and lawyers from Leigh Day. As a CAAT press release explained:

They will argue that the decision to grant the licences was against UK arms export policy, which clearly states that the government must deny such licences if there is a ‘clear risk’ that the arms ‘might’ be used in ‘a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law’.

CAAT’s claim also includes evidence from a range of international organisations. These include UN experts, “the European Parliament and many humanitarian NGOs”. All have condemned the ongoing Saudi airstrikes against Yemen as unlawful. The violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) found by these bodies include: 

  • A failure to take all precautions in attack as required by IHL.
  • Attacks causing disproportionate harm to civilians and civilian objects.
  • Failure to “adhere to the principle of distinction”. This includes targeting “civilians and civilian objects”.
  • The destruction of Cultural Property.

As The Canary reported in March, Yemen-based Mwatana for Human Rights released a report that linked UK-made bombs to attacks on civilian infrastructure.

The court also gave permission for Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch (UK) to “use their specialist knowledge” and make an additional argument in the case. CAAT reported that Oxfam has intervened separately too.

“Global concern”

Rosa Curling of Leigh Day said “there is strong global concern over the actions of Saudi-led forces in Yemen”. As she also explained, many international organisations “have raised concerns about the clear violations of international humanitarian law taking place against the Yemeni people”. 

Yet despite this evidence, Curling continued, the UK government “continues to grant licences” for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. 

From 9 April, there’s also a vigil outside the Court of Appeal.

Featured image via Felton Davis/Flickr

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  • Show Comments
    1. So the Russians poisoned a few people in Salisbury and get international condemnation and sanctions.

      SA kill a journalist in someone else’s country, have laws that trample human rights and are causing the World’s worst humanitarian disaster in Yemen and not only do we say nothing, but we continue to sell them arms. Shameful.

      At least Trump had the balls to just say, “Well we want their money.”

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