UK Government broke law over Saudi arms sales, court finds

Ministers failed to properly assess whether Saudi forces had violated International Humanitarian Law before signing off on the sale of weapons used in Yemen’s civil war, judges conclude

  • Landmark decision overturns a 2017 High Court ruling which allowed the continuation of UK export licences for the sale of British arms to Saudi Arabia
  • Campaigners welcome decision, saying: it should never have taken a court case brought by campaigners to force the government to follow its own rules
  • Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox to make emergency statement to the House of Commons addressing the verdict

THE UK Government’s decision to allow British arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been declared “unlawful” by the Court of Appeal, due to ministers’ failure to consider the weapons’ contribution to civilian casualties in Yemen.

Campaigners welcomed the judgement, made today [20 June] in London, which overturned a 2017 High Court ruling which allowed the UK Government to continue licensing the export of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen’s ongoing war, where international concerns have grown over the use of such weapons against civilians.

An appeal against the 2017 decision was brought earlier this year by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) - represented by the solicitors Leigh Day – who based the legal action on reports that Saudi forces have violated International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in their bombing of Yemen, where the death toll is believed to be approaching 100,000, including 11,700 civilians who died as a result of attacks which specifically targeted them.

Criterion 2c of the Consolidated EU and National Arm Export Licensing criteria says that export licences should not be granted if there is a clear risk that the equipment to be exported could be employed in a serious violation of IHL.

“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.” CAAT spokesperson Andrew Smith

In their judgment today, the Master of the Rolls, Rt Hon Sir Terence Etherton; Lord Justice Irwin, and Lord Justice Singh concluded that it was “irrational and therefore unlawful” for Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox to have made the export licensing decisions without assessing whether or not past incidents amounted to breaches of IHL and, if they did, whether measures subsequently taken meant there was no longer a "clear risk" that future exports might do so.

The judges said: "The question whether there was an historic pattern of breaches of IHL ... was a question which required to be faced."

The decision will now compel the secretary of state for international trade to reconsider the export licences in accordance with the legal approach made clear by the judgement. However, a spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said that ministers would seek leave to appeal, saying: “This judgment is not about whether the decisions themselves were right or wrong, but whether the process in reaching those decisions was correct.”

Commenting on the Court of Appeal’s judgement, Andrew Smith of CAAT 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.

READ MORE: On fourth anniversary, CAAT says Yemen war ‘not possible’ without UK-US support

“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. 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.”

Leigh Day solicitor Rosa Curling added:  “Our client is delighted with the judgment handed down today. The court has ruled the government’s procedure for granting licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia is unlawful. The Government has been forced to accept it must now stop granting new licences for arms exports to Saudia Arabia, for possible use in the conflict in Yemen pending any application to the Court of Appeal for a stay.

“The horrors that the world has witnessed in Yemen can no longer be ignored by the UK government. When considering whether to grant licences, the court has confirmed the Secretary of State must assess whether the KSA has breached international humanitarian law previously.

READ MORE: ‘Condemnation will not do’: SNP’s Iain Blackford challenges May over Saudi arms sales at PMQs

“The pattern of serious violations do not simply need to be "taken into account" as the Divisional Court found; the Court of Appeal has ruled that the pattern has to be properly assessed and considered. An answer to the question of whether KSA has breached IHL has to be answered.

“The government will now have to reconsider whether to suspend existing export licenses and reconsider its decision to continue to grant licences. Our client hopes the government will reconsider quickly and will decide that no further licences should be granted.”

It has been reported that Liam Fox will make an emergency statement to the House of Commons today to address the ruling.

Following the judgement, Labour called for “a full parliamentary or public inquiry”, with shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry commenting that the verdict proved “ministers have wilfully disregarded the evidence that Saudi Arabia was violating international humanitarian law in Yemen, while nevertheless continuing to supply them with weapons”.

Responding to the decision, SNP foreign affairs spokesperson Stephen Gethins MP also said: “Today’s court ruling that the UK government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful is welcome and a damning indictment of the UK government’s flawed foreign policy approach that has led to a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

“The decision must serve as a wake-up call for the UK government and it must now urgently re-think its strategy and instead seek to become a player for peace in the country.

“Earlier this year, the UN launched its largest ever single country appeal, aiming to raise £3.2 billion to support NGOs working in Yemen. However, the UK government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia eclipse the UN’s total appeal by more than a billion pounds - at a staggering £4.6 billion since the war began in 2015. The UK government should be ashamed of its role in the war in Yemen.

“Germany, Canada, Spain, Finland, Denmark, the US Congress and EU Parliament have all taken a principled stance against further arms exports to the Saudi regime as a direct result of the war in Yemen.

“Rather than being on the wrong side of history, the UK government must get its act together and support efforts to bring this war to an end."

Picture courtesy of Alisdare Hickson

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