UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful, Court of Appeal rules

Posted On: 
20th June 2019

The UK's arms export regime to Saudi Arabia has been deemed unlawful after a landmark legal case brought by arms control campaigners.

Theresa May has been criticised for allowing arms sales to continue to the regime
Credit: 
PA

The ruling follows a challenge from activist group Campaign Against Arms Trade to overturn a 2017 High Court judgement allowing the UK to continue sales of arms to the Saudi regime.

Three leading judges said it was "irrational and therefore unlawful" for International Trade Secretary Liam Fox to have granted licenses for weapons exports without making an assessment of whether their use could constitute a breach of international humanitarian law.

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Ministers have granted £4.7bn worth of export licenses since the start of the civil war in Yemen in 2015 despite international concerns about the impact of the war on Yemen's civilian population.

The Saudi-led coalition, which has provided air bombardment to support the Yemeni government against Houthi rebel groups, have been repeatedly accused of targeting civilians in the conflict.

Almost 100,000 people are estimated to have died, either as a result of military action or during a severe famine which has gripped the country.

In a damning ruling, the judges said the Government "made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so".

But they ruled that arms sales would not have to be immediately suspended to the country.

Instead, ministers were ordered to "reconsider the matter" and make further considerations when granting any new export licenses.

Responding to the judgement, a government spokesperson, said: "This judgement is not about whether the decisions themselves were right or wrong, but whether the process in reaching those decisions was correct.

"We disagree with the judgement and will be seeking permission to appeal."

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said: "We're disappointed the court found against the Government on one ground."

Tory leadership candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have both faced criticism for greenlighting exports to the Saudi regime during their time in the Foreign Office.

"State terrorism"

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry called for the sale of arms destined to be used in Yemen to be immediately halted.

"This devastating judgement proves everything Labour has been saying for years: that ministers have wilfully disregarded the evidence that Saudi Arabia was violating international humanitarian law in Yemen, while nevertheless continuing to supply them with weapons," she said. 

“What we now need is a full parliamentary or public inquiry to find out how that was allowed to happen, and which ministers were responsible for those breaches of the law."

Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, said: “We welcome this verdict, but it should never have taken a court case brought by campaigners to force the Government to follow its own rules.The Saudi Arabian regime is one of the most brutal and repressive in the world, yet, for decades, it has been the largest buyer of UK-made arms."

He added: "No matter what atrocities it has inflicted, the Saudi regime has been able to count on the uncritical political and military support of the UK.

"The bombing has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. UK arms companies have profited every step of the way. The arms sales must stop immediately.”

Labour MP Lloyd Russel Moyle, who sits on Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls, told PoliticsHome: "We need to know how Britain has been illegally arming a Saudi Arabian bombing campaign that has killed 100,000 people."

He added: "Saudi Arabia is engaged in nothing short of state terrorism in Yemen. In an unsuccessful effort to change the politial situation on the ground in northern Yemen, it is targeting the entire population, hitting schools, hospitals, weddings and funerals."

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox is expected to give a statement to the House of Commons later today to set out the government's response to the ruling.