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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
Press releases

Campaigners slam ‘shocking‘ decision to resume UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia a day after imposing sanctions on senior officials

Courts ruled that sales of arms to Saudi Arabia were unlawful last year (PA)

4 min read

UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are set to resume a day after the Government imposed sanctions on senior officials in the country for human rights abuses.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss confirmed in a written statement on Tuesday that a review into the approval process for arms trade licenses had been completed, and that work would now begin on “clearing the backlog of licence applications”.

The move comes just a after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that sanctions would be imposed on 20 Saudi nationals implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

They were included on a list of 49 individuals and organisations which faced asset freezes and travel bans for their involvement in human rights violations.

Ongoing arms deals between Saudi Arabia and the UK - which were at the time worth £4.7 billion - were ruled unlawful by courts in June last year as ministers had not assessed if they would be used against Yemeni civilians in country's bloody civil war.

The emirate has faced international condemnation for after it began a campaign of airstrikes against northern Yemen in 2015 to prevent incursions from Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.

It is estimated that these strikes, which reportedly impacted hospitals and schools, have caused 8,000 civilian deaths in Yemen since the conflict began.

In her statement, Ms Truss confirmed that new criteria had been established to judge whether acts by Saudi Arabia could be considered against international humanitarian law (IHL).

She said that the UK Government would now consider whether “credible incidents of concern” were part of a pattern, represented an unwillingness to comply with IHL, or indicted a systematic weakness that could give rise to IHL breaches.

“This analysis has not revealed any such patterns, trends or systemic weaknesses,” Ms Truss said.

“It is noted, in particular, that the incidents which have been assessed to be possible violations of IHL occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons. The conclusion is that these are isolated incidents.”

The statement continued: “In the light of all that information and analysis, I have concluded that, notwithstanding the isolated incidents which have been factored into the analysis as historic violations of IHL, Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with IHL.”

“On that basis, I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL.”


But decision attracted condemnation from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which brought the case against the Government last year. 

"This is a disgraceful and morally bankrupt decision. The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and the government itself admits that UK-made arms have played a central role in the bombing,” Andrew Smith of the CAAT said. 

“We will be considering this new decision with our lawyers and will be exploring all options available to challenge it.”
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: "The situation in Yemen is horrific, with Saudi Arabia persistently violating human rights and the rule of law. Arms sales to the regime should be banned until further notice.

"Last year the Conservative Government breached the Court of Appeal ruling on the licensing of arms for use in Yemen and now they are trying to make out as though Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses are a one-off.

"The Government need to gain some humanity on this - Saudi Arabia should have been ruled out as an arms trading partner long ago.

"If they are serious about defending human rights - as Raab stated is the purpose of the new Magnitsky style sanctions - then there should be no question on this."

And Humanitarian charity Oxfam also condemned the decision as “shocking”, with its chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah, saying: “The UK should not licence arms to a country that has led a coalition in their bombardment of Yemen over more than five years.”

“Even before the coronavirus hit, Yemen was already facing the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis and had seen its hospitals and clinics decimated in the conflict.

“It’s nothing short of cruel that the government should take the decision to restart sales to Saudi Arabia at such a time.”

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