'Rare Piece of Good News for the People of Yemen' as UK Court Finds Weapons Sales to Saudis Unlawful

In an “historic” Thursday ruling, the U.K. Court of Appeal declared unlawful the government’s decision to allow weapons sales to Saudi Arabia while it wages war on Yemen without assessing breaches of international humanitarian law.

“This is the first time that a U.K. court has acknowledged the risks of continuing to lavish Saudi Arabia with military equipment for use in Yemen.”
—Lucy Claridge, Amnesty International

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The judgment (pdf) came in response to a judicial review brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT)—joined by Amnesty International, Rights Watch U.K., and Human Rights Watch. Amnesty’s Lucy Claridge called the ruling “a rare piece of good news for the people of Yemen.”

“We welcome this verdict,” CAAT campaigner Andrew Smith said in a statement, “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 U.K.-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 U.K.,” Smith added. “The arms sales must stop immediately.”

Claridge celebrated the ruling as “a major step towards preventing further bloodshed,” and noted that “this is the first time that a U.K. court has acknowledged the risks of continuing to lavish Saudi Arabia with military equipment for use in Yemen.”

Announcing the judgment in London Thursday, Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton reportedly 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.”

The court found it was “irrational and therefore unlawful” for the government to grant export licenses for arms or military equipment without such assessments of Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen—which has led to what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis—and ordered Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox to launch an immediate review of how the Saudis are using British weapons.

Amnesty pointed out Thursday that “extensive and credible reports, including Amnesty International’s own research in Yemen, have demonstrated that equipment and weapons similar to the ones exported by the U.K., including British-made weapons, have been repeatedly used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes.”

“During four years of devastating war the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen, flattening homes, schools and hospitals in indiscriminate air strikes,” said Claridge, who called on Fox to approach the court-ordered review “as a matter of urgency” that should result in suspension of arms export licenses.

Fox told members of Parliament Thursday that the government “will not grant any new licenses for export to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which might be used in the conflict in Yemen” while it considers the implications of the court’s judgment and seeks an appeal.

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn turned to Twitter Thursday to urge the U.K.’s Tory government to accept the judgment. “U.K. advice, assistance, and arms supplies to Saudi’s war in Yemen is a moral stain on our country,” wrote the opposition leader. “Arms sales to Saudi must stop now.”

Guardian columnist Owen Jones tweeted: “This is such an incredible victory. The utter disgrace of the British government arming a mass murdering dictatorship—which has plunged Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and used our weapons to slaughter children—has been stopped.”

“We hope that this marks the end of this chapter of shameful impunity and leads to increased scrutiny of other major arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia, such as France and the U.S.,” said Amnesty’s Claridge. “We continue to call for the immediate suspension of all arms transfers to all parties to the conflict for use in Yemen.”

While anti-war campaigners have raised alarm about the U.K., France, and the U.S. allowing weapons sales and providing assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since the conflict began four years ago, those nations’ governments have faced mounting scrutiny since Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered at a Saudi consulate last year—and as U.S. intelligence services and U.N. researchers both have concluded the killing was likely orchestrated by top Saudi officials.

Earlier this year, several French media outlets and The Intercept reported on leaked documents from France’s military intelligence agency which “show that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are overwhelmingly dependent on Western-produced weapon systems to wage their devastating war in Yemen.” Those reports came shortly after members of Congress sent a War Powers resolution that aimed to end U.S. complicity in the mass slaughter to President Donald Trump’s desk.

Trump vetoed that resolution in April—and in the months that followed, his administration has worked to bypass Congress to enable U.S. manufacturers to sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Though the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate voted Thursday to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump is expected to also veto those resolutions.

The developments in the U.K. and U.S. Thursday followed a new analysis from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) that found the Yemen war death toll exceeds 91,000. The group also said in a statement Tuesday that “since 2015, the Saudi-led coalition and its allies are responsible for over 8,000 of the approximately 11,700 fatalities reported in connection with direct targeting of civilians in Yemen.”

This post has been updated to clarify that Trump vetoed a War Powers resolution in April.

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