19th February 2017
Since the Saudi led coalition began its bombing of Yemen in March 2015, the UK has licensed about £3.3bn of weapons to the Arab dictatorship. Support for the Saudis is part of a bigger picture of UK arms fuelling conflict in the Middle East. In the years leading up to the so called Arab Spring of 2011 the UK sold countries in the region £41.3m of small arms, £7m of ammunition and £34.3m of armoured vehicles. According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) those figures have since risen to an annual average of £58.9m, £14m and £58.9m respectively. The people of the region may have been demanding democracy, the arms dealers of the West were simply looking to cash in.
The relationship with the Saudi despots is a particularly lucrative one for the UK, with 2015 seeing 83% of all UK arms exports, almost £900m, going to the dictatorship. By way of return the UK imported over £900m of oil from Saudi Arabia over the same period. For anyone wondering why the British Royal Family are always keen to kowtow to the Saudis princes this offers something by way of explanation.
While the Saudis kept the weapons at home, to been shown off as vanity purchases to feed their egos and warn the internal opposition, they have not received much attention. Using these war toys on the international stage however inevitably brings greater scrutiny and Saudi intervention in areas outside of their borders has been a growing feature of life in the Middle East in recent years. Stirrings of dissent in Bahrain in 2011, with demands for democracy and freedom of speech, quickly saw Saudi troops dispatched to prop up the flagging Bahraini dictatorship and ensure that no such notions took root on the Arabian peninsula.
As a reliable NATO ‘ally’ the Saudis have played their part in undermining the Syrian regime and fermenting the long running civil war in that country. The fact that the Saudis have also been covertly fuelling the al-Qaeda elements opposing the government of President Assad adds further irony to the notion that they are policing the region for the West. For the Saudis an unstable Syria is less of a threat than a stable Syria aligned to their major regional opposition, in the form of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
CAAT is challenging the UK government’s decision to continue to licence the export of military equipment to Saudi Arabia. The High Court hearing took place in open session from Tuesday, 7th February to lunchtime Wednesday, 8th February. A hearing closed to CAAT, the press and the public, was held during the afternoon of Wednesday, 8th February and all day on Friday, 10th February. CAAT’s interests are represented by Special Advocates.
The legal action is a Judicial Review, a type of court proceeding in which the judges review the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body. In this case the judges will be examining the lawfulness of the decisions made by the Secretary of State responsible for export controls.
The two year long civil war in the Yemen has so far claimed 10,000 civilian casualties. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that,
“almost two-thirds of reported civilian deaths had allegedly been caused by coalition air strikes, which were also responsible for almost two-thirds of damaged or destroyed civilian public buildings.”
Even the International Development and Business, Innovation and Skills Committee of the UK Parliament acknowledged last October that,
“Given the evidence we have heard and the volume of UK-manufactured arms exported to Saudi Arabia, it seems inevitable that any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the coalition have involved arms supplied from the UK. This constitutes a breach of our own export licensing criteria.”
The momentum behind the CAAT campaign has been gathering, with a petition and significant lobbying of MPs to ensure the issues of arms sales to Saudi Arabia has high political profile. Owen Jones, writing in The Guardian recently summed up the issues stating,
“While the high court considers the legality of arms sales, the moral case is inarguable. Thousands of Yemeni civilians are being murdered, and our government shares responsibility. Yemen may seem like a far-away country, whose internal situation is too complicated to understand, and don’t we have enough to worry about here? But our silence risks being complicity. Our government is acting in our name. Yemeni civilians are cowering for their lives, partly because of decisions made by No 10. Don’t let them get away with it.”
Judgement on the CAAT challenge is expected in four to six weeks. It will be interesting to hear the High Court justification if it is turned down and even more interesting to hear the response of the government if it is upheld.