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Suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, says Bishop of St Albans

28 June 2019

Dr Smith speaks out after Court of Appeal rules on Saudi Arabia


Displaced children in a camp on the outskirts of Aden, Yemen, this month

Displaced children in a camp on the outskirts of Aden, Yemen, this month

SALES of arms to Saudi Arabia should be suspended, in the light of a ruling by the Court of Appeal that the Government has failed to assess adequately the risk that they may be used in violation of international law, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said on Thursday last week.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which mounted the legal challenge, greeted the Court’s decision as a “historic verdict”. It had argued that the Government had failed to enforce its own rules, which state that military export licences should not be granted if there is a “clear risk” that the arms might be used in “serious violations of International Humanitarian Law”.

Sir Terence Etherton, sitting with Lord Justice Irwin and Lord Justice Singh, said that the Government “made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so”.

The decision did not mean that licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia must immediately suspended, he said. But the Government “must reconsider the matter” and assess any future risks.

“In the light of this judgment, I am calling on the Government to voluntarily suspend sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, ceasefire or no ceasefire,” Dr Smith said. “We need reassurance that the Government has adopted appropriate safeguards to protect civilians in future. Aid is still needed vitally in Yemen and I hope international partners will work with the Government to deliver this.”

A government spokesperson said on Thursday: “This judgment is not about whether the decisions themselves were right or wrong, but whether the process in reaching those decisions was correct.

“We disagree with the judgment and will be seeking permission to appeal.”

Dr Smith has raised the conflict in Yemen, and the use of weapons made or sold by British companies, on several occasions in the House of Lords, saying that “some people are really concerned [they] could be used for, as is being alleged, war crimes.” In April, he asked whether “third parties” had provided information about such weapons and was told that the Government’s officials “examine every export licence application rigorously on a case-by-case basis”.

The Government has emphasised that it engages in “regular dialogue” with NGOs and international organisations during this process.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, who has also pressed the Government on its risk assessment, said on Thursday that, in conducting the review mandated by the Court of Appeal, it should “review and be clear about the humanitarian as well as legal basis for its judgement”.

In December, Christian Aid accused the Government of a “double standard” in leading calls for a peace agreement in Yemen and spending millions on humanitarian aid and promoting “massive new arms sales” to Saudi Arabia (News, 21 December 2018).

Between 2013 and 2017, nearly half (49 per cent) of the UK’s arms exports went to Saudi Arabia in sales, and were estimated to have contributed £4.6 billion to the UK economy. A poll carried out by ComRes found that 61 per cent of respondents agreed that the Government should stop selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

A former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has described the UK as being “dangerously complicit” in an “almighty catastrophe of biblical proportions” unfolding in Yemen, and of operating a policy “riddled with internal inconsistencies”.

Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, and Finland have all suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

“These weapons sales should never have been licensed in the first place,” the CAAT statement says. “It should not take a group of campaigners taking the Government to court to force it to apply its own rules.

“It shouldn’t take four years of schools, hospitals, weddings, and funerals being bombed. It should not take tens of thousands of deaths and the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

“We must also question a system — and the priorities of government — that have allowed the continuing provision of arms in these circumstances.”

The United Nations estimates that 22.2 million people, almost 80 per cent of the population, in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 8.4 million who are at risk of starvation. This week, UNICEF reported that one woman and six newborn babies there were dying from complications in pregnancy or childbirth every two hours (News, 21 June).

Christian Aid’s head of UK Advocacy, Tom Viita, said on Thursday: “UK arms sales have been pouring petrol on the fire of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. There is a horrifying roll call of human-rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated by the Saudi-UAE-led coalition, propped up by UK government military advisers, arms exports, and ongoing political and technical support. The Court of Appeal judgment shows that the Government has been in the wrong all along.

“The UK Government trumpets itself as one of the largest aid donors to Yemen, but, as the largest arms dealer to the Middle East, it is giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Such hypocrisy is a moral stain on the UK’s international reputation.

“The court’s judgment puts scrutiny back on the UK’s toothless arms-export-control regime, already one of the weakest in Europe. If the arms-export regime cannot block arms deals that cause countless civilian deaths in Yemen, what use is it?”

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