Victory in UK-Saudi arms trade case

In a groundbreaking case, anti-arms trade campaigners have won a legal appeal to prove that UK weapons sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the war against Yemen were illegal. It is “a stunning rebuke for the government,” Green’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley commented. But the case is far from over – Alan Story reports.

Campaigners against the UK-Saudi arms trade gather on the steps of the Royal Court of Justice
Campaigners against the UK-Saudi arms trade gather on the steps of the Royal Court of Justice

Image: Campaign Against Arms Trade

Campaigners gather on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice to celebrate their success

Alan Story

Anti-arms trade campaigners have won an important legal appeal today (20 June) after the Court of Appeal ruled that UK weapons sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the war against Yemen were illegal.     

The successful case was brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) against the Secretary of State for International Trade in a challenge to the government's decision to sell British-made fighter aircraft, missiles, cluster bombs, drones and other high-tech weaponry to the Saudis since 2015.

This Gulf region war has been called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and has resulted in a death total approaching 100,000 people, particularly as a result of aerial bombardment.

“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,” Andrew Smith of CAAT told jubilant campaigners and reporters on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

“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 continued.

CAAT’s legal challenge was based on reports that the Saudi forces had violated international human rights law during the brutal four-year-long war – the Saudis purchase British-made weapons under export licenses.

In a strong defeat for May’s government, the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal concluded that it was ‘irrational and therefore unlawful’ for the UK government to ‘have made export licensing decisions without making at least some assessment’ of the ‘clear risk’ at stake.  

But the CAAT case is not over and future legal proceedings are already being scheduled. More funds are certain to be required.   

"The government should take this opportunity to rethink its whole approach to a regime notorious for its abuses of its own citizens"

Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, called the verdict “a stunning rebuke for the government”, adding that it “has failed in a basic legal obligation to make a systematic assessment of the past violations of human rights law, as it should have done before granting export licences.”

He continued: "The government should also take this opportunity to rethink its whole approach to a regime notorious for its abuses of its own citizens, and actions in Yemen.” A Labour Party spokesperson also welcomed the verdict.

The Trump government is also a leading arms supplier to the Saudis. Both the UK and the US have played a key role in supporting Saudi Arabia’s killing machine in Yemen, the poorest country in the region. In a hard-hitting and well-documented exposé released this week, Arron Merat, a former Economist correspondent in Tehran, showed the clear UK-Saudi links over the devastating air bombardment campaign.

Titled ‘The Saudis couldn’t do it without us,’ Merat’s article explained that ‘British weapons are doing much of the killing. Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors.’

Bombs fall over Sana'a, the capital of Yemen

UK Government at the side of Saudis in Yemen bombings

Right from the start of the bombing in Yemen, the UK government has been at the side of the Saudis. In 2015, then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond promised: “we’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.”

Prime Minister Theresa May, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt have all strongly endorsed these now-illegal weapons sales. When he held that post, Johnson announced in a 23 May 2018 statement to the House of Commons that British “personnel providing information, advice and assistance” would be sent to the region to help protect Saudi troops and military equipment, much of which was built by BAE Systems in the UK.

About the arms sales, Johnson claimed in the same statement that “the UK Government takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world.” The Court of Appeal begs to differ.

In February 2019, Foreign Secretary Hunt flew to Berlin to tell Germany that it should reverse its decision to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

At exactly the same moment that the Court of Appeal decision was announced, both Johnson and Hunt were out hustling for the votes from their fellow Tory MPs in their bid to succeed May as party leader and to be our next Prime Minister.

And within minutes, May’s government announced it would challenge today’s Court of Appeal decision. If today’s verdict is not overturned, it could be a huge political embarrassment for the Tory government. By then, May would be ‘yesterday’s PM’, but both Johnson and Hunt would still likely be on the proverbial ‘political centre-stage.’

Saudi Arabia faces yet more questions

The past two days have not been good ones for Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most repressive regimes and the second largest producer of fossil fuels.

On Wednesday, the United Nations released a 100-page report into what it called the “deliberate, premeditated execution” by the regime of a well-known Saudi Arabian journalist on 2 October 2018.

Here is an example of the press coverage that followed. Under the headline, ‘“Joints will be separated”: Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, retold’, an Associated Press story from 19 June began:

‘GENEVA (AP) — The gathering on the second floor of the Saudi consulate featured an unlikely collection: a forensic doctor, intelligence and security officers, agents of the crown prince's office. As they waited for their target to arrive, one asked how they would carry out the body.

‘Not to worry, the doctor said: "Joints will be separated. It is not a problem," he assured. "If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them."

‘Their prey, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, would not leave the consulate in Istanbul alive. And on Wednesday (19 June), more than eight months after his death, a UN special rapporteur revealed new details of the slaying – part of a report that insisted there was ‘credible evidence’ to warrant further investigation and financial sanctions against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.’

The last word – for now – is reserved for well-respected QC and international legal expert Philippe Sands, who was not involved in the CAAT case. In an interview conducted before today’s decision, Sands told journalist Merat that ministers should be personally concerned about the prospect of facing criminal charges for their role in arming Saudi Arabia.

“If the United Kingdom is supplying weapons that are being used to commit crimes, then the possibility cannot be excluded that a minister who signs off on the sales in that knowledge could in the future be hauled before a court of law, national or international,” Sands said in the interview.  

Keep up to date with this case by checking out the Campaign Against Arms Trade website.

Alan Story is a regular correspondent for Green World and a member of the Sheffield Green Party.