Britain failed to investigate war crimes allegations, court hears

Britain failed to investigate war crimes allegations, court hears
The UK government claims it wasn't aware of humanitarian crimes committed in Yemen with weapons it had sold Saudi Arabia, despite frequent NGO reports - because it didn't investigate them.
2 min read
08 February, 2017
Saudi Arabia killed 140 people in October when it bombed a civilian funeral hall [AFP]

The UK government may have illegally sold weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UK High Court heard on Tuesday.

Despite ministers' claims at the time, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) did not investigate or record potential breaches of international humanitarian law - a key requirement in export licensing - a lawyer for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade alleged.

This allowed the government to claim it "was not aware" of any evidence of war crimes at the time of sale, because the government was only "monitoring" these claims without further investigation, said Martin Chamberlain QC.

"The MoD has not found any breach of international humanitarian law... because their 'tracker' programme does not enable them to," the court heard.

The case was brought to court by the UK-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade, who want to force the government to stop issuing export licences for weapons destined for use in Yemen by Saudi Arabia.

"We know that the MoD's spreadsheet on these violations once had a column titled 'IHL breach?' - but no assessment was ever given and this column was removed from subsequent versions of the spreadsheet," said Chamberlain.

Concerns were also raised about the scope of the Saudi-coalition's bombing campaign and the "targeting" of civilians.

Chamberlain alleged the Saudi-coalition had not identified a military target in three-quarters of bombing missions analysed.

A UN panel of experts found "no evidence that the airstrikes had targeted legitimate military objectives" in eight out of ten investigations.

But Philip Hammond, the former foreign secretary, said in February 2016: "We have assessed that there has not been a breach of international humanitarian law by the coalition."

The court also heard how the official responsible for weapons exports control had privately advised the government to cease its weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

"To be honest, and I was very direct and honest with the secretary of state, my gut tells me we should suspend," Edward Bell, the head of the Export Control Organisation, wrote in an email read aloud to the court by Chamberlain.

"This would be prudent and cautious given the acknowledged gaps in knowledge about Saudi operations."

The judicial review continues.