Why we need a citizens' committee on the arms trade

Why we need a citizens' committee on the arms trade
Comment: The model for the citizens' committee could be taken across the country, and become a powerful tool for opposing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, writes Sophia Akram.
6 min read
27 May, 2019
The UN describes Yemen's conflict as the world's worst humanitarian crisis [Getty]
On 16 May, yet another airstrike by Saudi-led coalition forces hit the rebel-held city of Sanaa. At least three civilians were killed - a mother, her child and her husband. 

The strike was part of a wave of bombings in Yemen's four-year old civil war, in which Saudi weapons, along with warplanes, munitions and intelligence coming from western governments are still taking innocent Yemeni lives.

Western complicity in this war is a contentious issue, with outrage among civil society in the UK, as well as the general public.

So, on 22 May, Brighton's Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls [CAEC], chaired a "citizens committee", an alternative mechanism to directly challenge the Committee on Arms Export Controls and their decision to license arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

Evidence was presented so both civil society and members of the public could take their own view as to whether the government is right in providing export licenses, specifically for Paveway bombs, to the Saudi-led coalition, which has been accused of
violating international humanitarian law.

The committee gave a voice to a range of heavyweights in the field, including senior lecturer in International Relations specialising in UK arms licensing, Anna Stavrianakis; investigator Rawan Shaif of open source investigations publication Bellingcat; legal expert Bonyan Jamal from Yemeni human rights organisation Mwatana; author David Wearing, a specialist on UK relations with Saudi Arabia, and many others. 

Fellow CAEC member Catherine West MP and ex-ANC politician South African Andrew Feinstein from Corruption Watch UK helped chair the event.

The evidence presented was illuminating, and can be summed up as follows.


The event was based on the just notion that it is illegal to sell arms that might be used deliberately or recklessly against civilians.

Despite this, the UK government routinely licences their export. The conditions for decision-making seem clear enough; whether there is a clear risk the weapons might be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.

'It's not about economy or about jobs it's about Britain wanting to make sales to maintain itself as a military power' - David Wearing

But Stavrianakis says there's a problem with the composition and status of the committees. The CAEC is made up of other committees - foreign affairs, international trade and defense - so it isn't stand alone, and they can't compel ministers to stand before them. Where they do issue recommendations, they're non-binding.

"It is my view that the current chair is not fit to chair their committees", she also offered, "because he has publicly espoused positions that call into question his impartiality". Graham Jones, the current chair of CAEC earlier this year called into question claims over civilian deaths saying NGOs were routinely 
dishonest in their reporting.

The main problem says Stavrianakis is the "deliberate mobilisation of doubt and ambiguity about what is happening in Yemen". That eliminates clear risk of violations of international humanitarian law, so there is no longer a reason to sell weapons. Then there is evidence that licenses aren't being issued on a case by case basis, as the government has issued Saudi Arabia with open licenses.

Curling also admitted she saw the decision-making process as pretty straightforward, although the divisional court disagreed. It concluded the government only needs to consider the criteria and evidence before making a decision, something Curling contests, asserting that the Secretary of State should have also make conclusions about the propensity for violations of international humanitarian law.


In order to make those conclusions, evidence should be taken from a wide range of bodies, including NGOs and as Shaif and Jamal made clear, their evidence showed "civilian objects" had been struck. At times, their findings have been at odds with the Joint Investigative Assessment Unit (JIAT), a Saudi-led body commissioned to investigate whether there had been violations among their own forces.

Shaif recalled two strikes in dense urban areas of Yemen in 2015, where the evidence clearly illustrated that an airstrike had taken place, while the JIAT denied either incident had happened.

"These strikes are not unique in their nature, but they are rather representative of what JIAT has been saying over the past two years," according to Shaif. JIAT was started in 2015 as an investigative body independent from the coalition, but it was actually run by the coalition to investigate those incidents, raising concerns over partiality once again.

The bigger picture

So why does the UK insist on allowing unlawful arms sales to Saudi Arabia? It's not just about the money, according to Wearing who says, "arms sales is less about the arms industry and its profits and more the strategic question of the British state."

In order to avoid a situation where you are dependent on other states to provide arms - a position the Saudis are in - you need your own arms industry, he explained, and that costs money.

So you sell them to those who have the money to buy, like the Saudis. "It's not about economy or about jobs it's about Britain wanting to make sales to maintain itself as a military power".

Why does the UK insist on allowing unlawful arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

The actual economic impact, says Holden is relatively small, comparable to the plastics industry and is heavily reliant on massive government subsidies through the banks that facilitate the industry.

Holden claims the arms industry contributes only 4 percent of all manufacturing. Of that, only 1.2 percent are arms exports, about half of that is made up of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Over 50 percent of all orders that are given to UK arms manufacturers are government orders, which means the UK arms industry would cease to exist in its current form without that level of government support.

Promising to take conclusions to the Minister for Trade, Moyle took the final temperature and asked attendees what their "gut" says about providing export licenses to Saudi Arabia for Paveway bombs, and it's safe to say that the crowd was collectively in opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

This falls in line with UK public opinion, and while Wednesday's event was a pilot, the model for the citizens' committee could be taken across the country, and become a powerful tool to continue building opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. With any luck you'll be seeing a committee near you soon.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.