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In two weeks’ time, the High Court here will consider a case that could set a vital precedent and be instrumental in changing British arms export policy.
On February 7-9, following an application by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), judges will be examining the legality of arms exports to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.
For almost two years now, Saudi forces have inflicted a brutal and devastating bombing campaign on the people of Yemen. Schools, hospitals, and homes have been destroyed in a bombardment that has killed 10,000 people and inflicted a humanitarian catastrophe on one of the poorest countries in the region.
The appalling consequences have been condemned by the United Nations, the European Parliament, and major aid agencies on the ground, with the Red Cross warning that the country has been left on the edge of famine.
A harrowing report from UNICEF has found that one child is dying every 10 minutes because of malnutrition, diarrhea, and respiratory-tract infections in Yemen, with 400,000 at risk of starvation.
Right at the outset of the bombing, Britain’s then-foreign secretary Philip Hammond pledged to “support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat.” Unfortunately, the British government has stayed true to his word. One major way in which it has done this is through the sale of arms.
Despite the destruction, and despite its appalling human rights record at home, Saudi Arabia is by far the largest buyer of British arms.
The arms sales haven’t slowed down; in fact, Britain has licensed over £3.3 billion ($4.1 billion USD) worth of arms since the bombing began. These include Typhoon fighter jets, which have been used in the bombardment, and missiles and bombs that reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have linked to attacks on civilian targets.
Last month, Saudi forces even admitted to using British-made cluster bombs, one of the cruelest and deadliest weapons that can be used in warfare. When bombs are dropped they open up in mid-air to release hundreds of sub-munitions. Their impact is indiscriminate. Anybody within the striking area is very likely to be killed or seriously injured.
The bombs were exported in 1988, but the lifespan of weapons is very often longer than that of the political situation they are bought in. How will the billions of pounds’ worth of weapons being sold now be used and who will they be used against?
If cluster bombs are not considered beyond the pale by the Saudi military, then what is the likelihood that its personnel are doing everything in their power to avoid civilian casualties? It’s not just the bombs that are deadly, it is the mindset which allows their use in the first place.
British arms export law is very clear. It says that licenses for military equipment should not be granted if there is a “clear risk” that it “might” be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. By any reasonable interpretation, these criteria should definitely prohibit all arms sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen.
Of course the relationship is nothing new and the problem is institutional rather than party-political. For decades now successive British governments of all political colors have armed and uncritically supported the Saudi regime.
In 2006, we saw former Prime Minister Tony Blair intervening to stop a corruption investigation into arms deals between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems. This was quickly followed by another multibillion-pound fighter jet sale. In 2013 and 2014, we saw then-Prime Minister David Cameron and even Prince Charles making visits to the Saudi Kingdom where they posed for fawning photographs and pushed arms sales.
One outcome of this cozy partnership has been a high level of integration between British and Saudi military programs. There are around 240 British Ministry of Defense civil servants and military personnel working to support the contracts through the Ministry of Defense Saudi Armed Forces Program and the Saudi Arabia National Guard Communications Project.
The political consensus seems to be shifting though, with the Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat front benches — and many Tory backbench legislators — all calling for arms sales to be suspended while an independent investigation into their legality takes place. This has gone a long way in shifting the terms of the debate.
But, even if it is taken up, it can not be enough unless it is complemented by an end to future arms sales and a meaningful change in foreign policy.
Regardless of the outcome in court next month, it is already clear how weak and broken British arms export controls are. A brutal dictatorship has created a humanitarian catastrophe, killed thousands of civilians, and flouted international law and yet Britain has continued arming and supporting it.
Instead of following its own rules on arms sales, the government has prioritized arms company profits over human rights.
If that’s not enough to stop arms sales, then what more would it take?