Court exposes morally bankrupt arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Court ruling exposes morally bankrupt arms sales to Saudi Arabia
4 min read
27 Jun, 2019
Comment: The ruling exposed the lie behind the UK government's claims that its arms export controls are among the most 'rigorous and robust' in the world, writes Andrew Smith.
Londoners protest against UK weapons to Saudi Arabia [AFP]
Over the last four years, Saudi Arabian-led forces have inflicted the world's worst humanitarian crisis on the people of Yemen.

Over 20,000 airstrikes have taken place in a bombardment that has destroyed schools, hospitals and homes all across Yemen.

Many of the bombs, missiles and fighter jets that have been used were made here in the UK. Since the war began in March 2015, the UK has licensed $6.3 billion worth of arms to the Saudi regime. Following a landmark ruling by the Court of Appeal last week, we now know that the decision for the UK to sell those arms was taken unlawfully.

In its 92 page judgment, which followed a case brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade, the Court concluded that it was "irrational and therefore unlawful" for the government to allow the sales. The judges concluded by ordering the government to retake the decision properly, as well as stopping all future sales of arms that can be used in Yemen while such a review takes place.

This week that verdict came into effect, with the government notifying arms companies that future sales would not be permitted for arms to Saudi Arabia or any other member of the coalition at war in Yemen.

The ruling exposed the lie behind the UK government's claims that its arms export controls are among the most "rigorous and robust" in the world. What it shows is that the government is not seeking to control arms sales. Instead it has prioritised securing more arms deals over the lives and human rights of Yemenis and over its own commitments on arms controls.

The government has prioritised securing more arms deals over the lives and human rights of Yemenis

There is no doubt that UK-made arms have played a central role in the destruction. A recent report by Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni based human rights monitor, has linked specific UK-made arms to attacks on civilian infrastructure. All of this evidence has been available to the government, but it has chosen to ignore it. 

The policy of looking the other way is likely to continue regardless of who wins the ongoing Conservative Party leadership contest, with Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson having both signed-off on the sale of bombs and missiles during their Foreign Office tenures.

Needless to say, the government has announced that it will appeal the judgment. This shouldn't surprise anyone. It has shown a constant determination to out arms sales ahead of human rights, and to continue arming the Saudi regime and other human rights abusers.

The case we put forward was a very strong one, and, should such an appeal be made then we are confident that the government will lose again.

In any case, the sale of arms isn't just a legal question, it's also a moral and political one.

The policy of offering uncritical political and military support is a long term one that has been followed by successive governments of all political colours. In the past, Labour governments have enjoyed just as cosy and compromising a relationship with the Saudi royal family as Conservative governments.

Read more: Trump vows to veto Saudi arms sales block

That parliamentary consensus in the UK has broken down over recent years, with Jeremy Corbyn and his team taking a very different position from their predecessors. The leader of the opposition and his front bench colleagues were unanimous in supporting the Court verdict, something that would have been extremely unlikely in the past. 

Likewise, the consistent opposition from the SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrats has seen the government put under even more pressure and scrutiny. That parliamentary pressure must continue to ensure that any change is lasting and meaningful.

Big questions are also looming on the other side of the Atlantic, with Congress and the Senate both voting to block US arms sales to Saudi forces. The votes are likely to be vetoed by the White House, but are symbolic of a growing opposition from across the political spectrum.

There is no doubt that last week's verdict is a vitally important one.

It is the first time that arms sales have been scrutinised in this way, and sets a vital precedent for the future. However, it should never have taken a four-year long legal process brought by campaigners to force the government to follow its own export controls.

As long as the arms sales continue, the war will too. After four years of war and suffering in Yemen it's time for the UK and other arms dealing governments to finally stop the arms sales and end their complicity in the destruction.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Follow CAAT at on Twitter: @CAATuk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.