The UK's new legal battle over the Saudi arms trade

Activists march with homemade replica missiles past Parliament during a protest over UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia on 18 March, 2016. [Getty]
6 min read
31 May, 2021
In-depth: Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) is launching a new legal appeal to block the UK from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen's war.

Last year, the UK government renewed arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns they could be used against civilians in the war in Yemen.

On 22 April 2021, as part of a legal battle over arms control in the UK, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) was granted permission to bring a challenge to the High Court against the government for a second time.

The long legal battle

CAAT's first case began in 2016 when it challenged the UK government's decision to grant licenses for the export of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.

This legal dispute led to a High Court hearing in February 2017, which ultimately found in favour of the government. The judgement stated that the government's decision-making process was rigorous and rational in assessing the risks of breaches to international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia.

"The government had refused to answer the question of whether there was a historic pattern of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia"

CAAT appealed this decision in 2019, with the legal team pointing out that the government had refused to answer the question of whether there was a historic pattern of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia.

On this issue, the court found in favour of CAAT. It stated that the government's failure to look into Saudi Arabia's extensively documented breaches of humanitarian law constituted an "irrational and therefore unlawful" approach to arms export. The decision forced the government to freeze new licenses and review existing arms licenses granted to the Saudi-led coalition.

However, CAAT's victory was short-lived.

Following the court's judgement, the UK government conducted an internal review concluding that there was no historic pattern of Saudi breaches. Furthermore, just months later, the UK government contravened the court order "in error," licensing military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

A Yemeni child holds missile shrapnel outside a factory after it destroyed in airstrikes carried out by warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition killing three civilians and injured six others on January 20, 2019 in Sana'a, Yemen. [Getty]
A Yemeni child holds missile shrapnel outside a factory destroyed by Saudi airstrikes on 20 January 2019 in Sana'a, Yemen. [Getty]

In 2020, the government decided that the breaches of international humanitarian law referenced in the 2019 case were "isolated incidents," and resumed regular arms trade with Saudi Arabia, in contradiction to the nearly unanimous position of international organisations and human rights groups on the issue.

Commenting on this, Dr Samuel Perlo-Freeman, Research Coordinator for CAAT, told The New Arab, "we believe this to be absurd and to fly in the face of the vast body of evidence of repeated and continuing violations."

In-depth
Live Story

Speaking about the current case, he continued, "this is our chance to prove this and to compel the government to obey its own laws."

The legal argument

The laws in question come from the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria which states that the government will not grant a licence "if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law." 

However, since 2015, the UK's arms trade to Saudi Arabia and the UAE has amounted to £6.1b ($8.6b) worth of military goods, with £5.5b ($7.8b) relating to military aircraft, bombs, and missiles.

Despite these official figures, the arms trade is estimated to be much larger and consistently in breach of Export Licensing Criteria.

"The government repeats its mantra that it operates one of the most robust control regimes in the world. Observers of the war in Yemen beg to differ"

"Whenever questions are asked about UK arms export policy," says Professor Anna Stavrianakis, Professor of International Relations at University of Sussex and UK arms trade expert, "the government repeats its mantra that it operates one of the most robust control regimes in the world. Observers of the war in Yemen beg to differ." 

With the new judicial review planned for this later this year, Professor Stavrianakis told The New Arab, "the legal process is an opportunity to test that mantra once again."

The situation in Yemen

In the meantime, Yemen's humanitarian crisis is worsening.

Speaking to the UN Security Council, David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, stated that the country is "heading towards the biggest famine in modern history. It is hell on earth in many places in Yemen right now," and that for humanitarian crises like Yemen, "man-made conflict is the real culprit."

The latest Situation Report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) underscores this statement, finding 20.7 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance, five million people on the verge of famine, and over four million people displaced

A Yemeni child looks out of a window as food aid is distributed by a local charity at a camp for the displaced, in the northern province of Hajjah on 23 December 2017. [Getty]
A Yemeni child looks out of a window as food aid is distributed by a local charity at a camp for the displaced in the northern province of Hajjah on 23 December 2017. [Getty]

On top of this, there is a recorded resurgence in Covid-19 cases and a months-long fuel shortage due to Saudi Arabia's enforcement of a "blockade" on fuel supplies arriving at Al-Hodeidah port.

These realities in Yemen are a product of the conflict that began in 2014 after a failed transition following the Arab Spring uprising, which severely escalated with the Saudi-led coalition's intervention in March 2015. 

Current estimates number 112,000 deaths from the violence, of which 8,759 alone are civilian deaths from Saudi-led coalition airstrikes.

UK involvement in Yemen

The near-continuous support from the UK government in the form of extensive arms deals has been central to this escalation and the bombing carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. These deals have continued despite persistent opposition from domestic and international activists and NGOs.

Mwatana for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni organisation dedicated to defending and protecting human rights, has been granted the right to provide on-the-ground expertise to CAAT's second judicial review. Just like the 2019 interventions by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Rights Watch (UK), and Oxfam, Mwatana's intervention is likely to provide invaluable strength to CAAT's case.

"The UK government is facing a persistent legal problem that it cannot avoid in court, in parliament, or in the press"

The recent approval for a second judicial review provides new hope in bringing international law to bear on the UK's arms export policy and possibly easing the suffering of the Yemeni people. 

Dr Perlo-Freeman says, "we believe that we have an extremely strong and compelling case."

But the legal battle over the arms trade is only part of the picture. CAAT and other campaigners are continuing to call for serious diplomatic initiatives and for the UK to use its pen-holder status at the UN Security Council effectively.

"The fact that the case will be heard again is an opportunity to draw public and Parliamentary attention to the war in Yemen and the UK role in fuelling it," Dr Perlo-Freeman told The New Arab.

This current judicial review proves that the UK government is facing a persistent legal problem that it cannot avoid in court, parliament, or the press.

James Tarik Marriott is a London-based freelance journalist and researcher focusing on the Arabian Gulf. His writing has been featured in the Omani Centre for Human Rights, History Today, and the London Magazine. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jtamarriott