By Jessica Craig
In July 2020, the UK government announced that it would resume granting export licenses for the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns that these weapons might be used against civilians in Yemen. Yemen continues to suffer through an ongoing conflict, in which Saudi-led coalition forces are fighting the Houthi rebels, as well as food insecurity and disease outbreaks, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the UK government considers resuming arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be in line with British arms export policy, this decision clashes with a number of British commitments to protecting human rights, promoting peace and security, and responsible arms trading.
UK export policy bans the granting of military equipment licenses if there is deemed to be a ‘clear risk’ of violation of international humanitarian law. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia were suspended in June 2019 when the Court of Appeal ruled that the UK government had acted unlawfully in granting export licences to Saudi Arabia without making the necessary assessments as to whether the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen had violated international humanitarian law. Referring to the decision to resume granting export licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia this summer, Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss described evidence of human rights violations in Yemen due to Saudi-led airstrikes as ‘isolated incidents’ which do not constitute a pattern of violations necessary to warrant the suspension of arms sales. UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia have included the sale of Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets, drones, bombs and missiles, and have been worth at least £5.4 billion since the start of the war in Yemen in 2015 (Campaign Against Arms Trade 2020). In the same period, the UK has granted 95 unlimited-value ‘open’ licenses, which allow the license holder to export an unlimited quantity of the licensed goods, making it difficult to quantify exactly how much military equipment has been supplied to Saudi Arabia in the last five years, or how this has been used in Yemen.
But while the UK government does not consider Saudi Arabia’s reported breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen as sufficient to freeze arms sales, anti-arms trade campaigners argue that the sales of these weapons and equipment to Saudi Arabia make Britain complicit in the death of Yemeni citizens. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project has identified over 100,000 fatalities since the beginning of the conflict, including 12,000 civilians, and estimates that the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes have been responsible for over two thirds of these civilian deaths. The coalition’s use of airstrikes has targeted civilian gatherings such as weddings, funerals and marketplaces, and some of these attacks have been described as apparent war crimes (Human Rights Watch 2016). Amnesty International found that the coalition forces have used cluster munitions manufactured in the UK, USA and Brazil, resulting in indiscriminate violence against civilians, suggesting that British-made arms are being used in the violation of civilians’ human rights in Yemen (2015).
Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia constitute a major share of the UK arms industry. According to the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute, Saudi Arabia was the top destination for UK arms exports between 2015 and 2019, followed by Oman and the United States (2020). Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia bring in billions of pounds in revenue and support not just multinational corporations such as BAE Systems and Rolls Royce, but the many small and medium-sized enterprises within the arms industry supply chain.
However, evidence of international humanitarian law violations by Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen suggest that the continuation of these arms exports put the UK government in conflict with several other policy commitments.
The announcement that the UK would resume granting arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia came just one day after the government issued new sanctions against human rights abusers, including Saudi nationals implicated in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 (Human Rights Watch 2020). Additionally, just one week before the decision, the UK signed up to a United Nations appeal for a global ceasefire during COVID-19. As part of the Global Britain strategy for post-Brexit international relations, the UK government has committed to ‘leading by example as a force for good in the world’, and these commitments appear to be intended to promote peace and security and respect for human rights internationally. Additionally, the decision to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia appears to contradict the UK’s commitment to the Arms Trade Treaty, which aims to promote responsible trading in conventional arms and reduce human suffering due to the arms trade. Saudi Arabia has not yet signed the Treaty.
The UK government’s decision to recommence authorising arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia stands in contradiction with its aims of promoting good on the global stage, through commitments to regulate the arms trade, protect human rights and encourage conflict ceasefires. Whilst exports to Saudi Arabia make a significant contribution to the UK arms industry, reports of the misuse of British-supplied weapons and technologies against civilians, amounting to the violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen, must be taken seriously or the UK risks putting profit before the protection of civilian lives.
Amnesty International (2020) ‘Yemen War: No End in Sight’, 24 March. Available at:https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/09/yemen-the-forgotten-war/.
Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (2019) ‘Press Release: Over 100,000 Reported Killed in Yemen War’, 31 October. Available at: https://acleddata.com/2019/10/31/press-release-over-100000-reported-killed-in-yemen-war/.
BBC (2019) ‘UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful, court rules’, 20 June. Available at:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48704596.
BBC (2020) ‘Yemen: UK to resume Saudi arms sales after humanitarian review’, 7 July. Available at:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-53324251.
Campaign Against Arms Trade (2020) ‘The war on Yemen’s civilians’. Available at:https://www.caat.org.uk/campaigns/stop-arming-saudi/war-yemen-civilians.
Campaign Against Arms Trade (2020) UK Arms Export Licenses: Saudi Arabia. Available at:https://www.caat.org.uk/resources/export-licences/dashboard?region=Saudi+Arabia&date_from=2015.
Duncan, John (2013) ‘The UK’s role in the UN Arms Trade Treaty’, Civil Service Quarterly, 12 July. Available at:https://quarterly.blog.gov.uk/2013/07/12/the-uks-role-in-the-un-arms-trade-treaty-2/.
GOV.UK (2019) ‘Global Britain is leading the world as a force for good: article by Dominic Raab’, 23 September. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/global-britain-is-leading-the-world-as-a-force-for-good-article-by-dominic-raab.
Human Rights Watch (2016) ‘Yemen: Saudi-Led Funeral Attack Apparent War Crime’, 13 October. Available at:https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/13/yemen-saudi-led-funeral-attack-apparent-war-crime.
Human Rights Watch (2020) ‘UK’s New Human Rights Sanctions Offer Tool to Curb Abuse’, 7 July. Available at:https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/07/uks-new-human-rights-sanctions-offer-tool-curb-abuse.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2020) ‘TIV of arms exports from United Kingdom, 2015-2019’. Available at: http://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/html/export_values.php.
Stone, Jon (2020) ‘UK to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite ‘possible’ war crimes in Yemen, government says’, Independent, 7 July. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/britain-arms-sell-saudi-arabia-military-exports-a9605636.html.
UN News (2020) ‘170 signatories endorse UN ceasefire appeal during COVID crisis’, 24 June. Available at:https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/06/1066982.