UK-Saudi arms sales: Rival reports argue over legality

UK-Saudi arms sales: Rival reports argue over legality
4 min read
15 September, 2016
In-depth: British parliamentarians are split over calls to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia amid accusations of serious violations of humanitarian law in Yemen.
UK government under fire over arms sales to Saudi Arabia [Getty]

Confusion reigns over whether Britain can legally continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia during its assault on Yemen.

Rival reports from MPs have each recommended different options to the government, which is facing mounting pressure to suspend its billion-dollar arms trade with Riyadh amid allegations the regime is violating international humanitarian law in Yemen.

A report released on Thursday by the Foreign Affairs Committee said the UK should not suspend arms sales until the completion of an upcoming judicial review which will assess the legality of the trade.

Meanwhile, a separate report, prepared jointly by the Business, Innovation and Skills and International Development committees has called for a halt on arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

It added it was "inevitable" any violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition would have involved UK-made weapons.

Read more: UK earns blood money arming Saudi Arabia

"The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia," read the report.

MP Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who criticised the opposing report for its "one-sided view", said on Thursday: "I am yet to hear any persuasive argument for how we better secure our many strategic objectives in the region without a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia.

"It is crucial that the UK does everything in its power to ensure full compliance with international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition.

"We have made substantive recommendations on the need to establish clarity on such issues as the alleged use of UK-manufactured cluster bombs in Yemen and the activities of UK personnel with the Saudi-led coalition."

A statement added the courts were the "most appropriate" body to judge the legality of arms sales.

A judicial review, secured by the Campaign Against Arms Trade [CAAT], will take place before February.

The UK government should withhold arms' export licences if there is a clear risk these weapons will be used in ways that breach international humanitarian law, according to its own arms sales criteria. 

Thousands more people will die, Saudi will commit more war crimes, with the UK profiting from it
- Andrew Smith, CAAT

Westminster has been criticised for continuing to supply military hardware to Saudi Arabia - $3.7 billion worth since March 2015 - despite evidence produced by human rights groups, NGOs and aid agencies purportedly showing UK-made weapons used in the bloody battle against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Andrew Smith, CAAT spokesman, told The New Arab it was "ridiculous" the government should await the outcome of the judicial review before it reconsiders its arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

"Between now and [four months], thousands more people will die, Saudi will commit more war crimes, with the UK profiting from it.

"The criteria of suspending arms sales isn't that there should be a court case that finds it's illegal, but that there is a chance it is breaching international humanitarian law. The fact there is a court case itself demonstrates there is that chance."

According to the United Nations, more than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the start of the bombing 18 months ago.

The UN's commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, has said that the "carnage" caused by some of the Saudi-led coalition's airstrikes appear to constitute war crimes.

UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson has previously said the "key test" of a serious risk of breach of international humanitarian law had not been met.

And Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK's arms sales to Saudi Arabia "help keep Britain safe".

Reacting to reports, Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB chief executive, said: "These reports leave the government exposed as willfully ignoring both UK and international law in order to keep selling arms which are exacerbating one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

"The government has both a moral and legal obligation to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately and to carry out a rigorous investigation into how British arms are being used. These hard-hitting reports mean it can no longer hide behind the flimsy fig leaf of Saudi assurances."

Arms sales