U.K. Freezes Arms Export Licenses to Saudi Arabia Following Court Ruling

Yemeni textile factory, seen in November 2015 picture after having been bombed several months prior.  Source: Almigdad Mojalli/VOA

The government of the United Kingdom has halted the approval of arms exports licenses to Saudi Arabia, following a ruling by the Court of Appeal that British sales to the Saudi government are unlawful.

On June 20, 2019, the U.K. Court of Appeal ruled that continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia are unlawful, as government officials have failed to adequately assess their impact on civilians in the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition.  Under British law, the government is forbidden to make arms exports in instances where there is “clear risk” that the arms would be used in a “serious violation of international humanitarian law.”  The government, according to Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton, “made no attempt” to reach a conclusion on whether there was a risk that British-supplied weapons would further violations of international law in Yemen.

The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, said that in light of the ruling, the government will suspend issuing new arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia, while looking to appeal the ruling.  He noted, “Today’s judgment is not about whether the government has made the right or wrong decisions about granting export licences, but concerns the rationality of the process used to reach decisions.”

Human rights organizations applauded the Court’s ruling, which reverses a 2017 decision by the High Court that found that the Saudi-led coalition was not deliberating seeking to target civilians in its war effort in Yemen.  Riyadh has denied accusations of war crimes in its campaign.

In a statement, Amnesty International’s Lucy Claridge, who is the organization’s Director of Strategic Litigation, said, “This judgment is a rare piece of good news for the people of Yemen.  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.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who is in London, said in a statement quoted by Al Arabiya that the termination of arms sales to his country will help Iran, a rival of Saudi Arabia.

While precise figures are not available, it has been reported by monitors that tens of thousands of Yemenis have been killed in the war, which has resulted in significant population displacement and damage to many of Yemen’s towns and cities.  In 2014, Ansar Allah, an Iranian-backed rebel group, captured the capital, Sana’a.  The following March, Saudi Arabia began air strikes as part of an effort to oust the Yemeni rebels from the city.

As Saudi Arabia’s military force structures are predominately Western in origin, human rights activists have pressured Western governments to curtail sales to the Saudi government amid reports of large civilian casualties.  A number of countries in Europe have cut arms sales to Riyadh – the most notable among these being Germany, which extended its arm embargo in March for another six months – but key suppliers, including France, the U.K., and the U.S., have continued to issue export licenses to the Kingdom.

The new decision from the U.K. government puts on hold further sales to Riyadh while the government appeals.  The U.K. has previously sought to close a follow-on Eurofighter Typhoon deal with Saudi Arabia, but that project is likely shelved for now.

The U.S. Congress on Thursday is considering legislation that would block several arms deals to Saudi Arabia that were recently approved by the Trump administration.  While a resolution may pass the Senate, it is expected that President Donald Trump will veto the measure.

About Derek Bisaccio

Military markets analyst, covering Eurasia, Middle East, and Africa.

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