The Tory government is to resume selling arms to Saudi Arabia—now in its fifth year of a devastating war on Yemen—despite a court ruling that such sales were unlawful.
Trade secretary Liz Truss said there was no “clear risk” that risk that weapons would be used in a “serious” violation of humanitarian law. She said the government would now work through a “backlog” of applications to sell arms, which has grown since the court ruling in June 2019.
The move shows Tory claims to care about human rights is a lie.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. At least 12,000 civilians have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch. Some 20 million people also face food insecurity because of the war—10 million of them at risk of famine.
Many of those killed died in what Human Rights Watch describes as “indiscriminate” air strikes by Saudi Arabia. The coalition led by Saudi Arabia has launched more than 21,000 air strikes on Yemen since it began the war in 2015—including on mosques, schools and hospitals.
Yet in her statement yesterday Truss said Saudi Arabia had “genuine intent” to comply with international humanitarian law. Because of that, she said the ruling that arms sales were unlawful “no longer applies.”
The Court of Appeal ruled in 2019 that licences to sell arms to Saudi Arabia granted since 2016 were unlawful. It said the government hadn’t assessed whether previous sales had been used in breaches of humanitarian law.
It said Tory ministers—including Boris Johnson—had illegally signed off on arms sales in 2016 without assessing the risk to civilians.
The Tories have responded by spending a year “assessing” allegations made against Saudi Arabia in order to decide they were all “isolated incidents”.
Truss said that meant Saudi Arabia doesn’t intend to break humanitarian law—and that weapons sales can begin again.
It came just a day after Raab made a show of threatening sanctions against human rights abusers, including some Saudi officials.
“Those with blood on their hands won’t be free to waltz into this country, to buy up property on the Kings Road, do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or siphon dirty money through British banks,” he said.
“You cannot set foot in this country, and we will seize your blood-drenched ill-gotten gains if you try.”
His bluster is just a cover to allow arms sales—key to Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia—to continue.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said, “This is a disgraceful and morally bankrupt decision.
"The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and the government itself admits that UK-made arms have played a central role in the bombing.”
Britain has sold at least £5.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since its war on Yemen began in March 2015. But their history of major arms deals goes back much further.
Saudi Arabia is a key enforcer of the US’s power in the Middle East. British governments sell arms to Saudi Arabia to boost their standing as the US’s junior partner.
Johnson said in 2016 that halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia would destroy their relationship “at a stroke”—and that other countries would fill the gap.
That’s why his government has been desperate to overturn the ban on sales—and has breached the ban at least three times in the past year.
Britain’s relationship with murderous regimes is far more important to the Tories than the lives of ordinary people who die beneath their bombs.