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Why the UK should stop arming Saudi Arabia

The United Kingdom stands accused of providing weapons to the Saudi-led coalition and, through such, being partly responsible for a series of deadly attacks on civilians in Yemen between January 2021 and February 2022, according to a recent report by Oxfam. The report reveals that at least 87 civilian deaths, 136 injuries, 19 attacks on healthcare facilities and 293 attacks that forced people to flee their homes have been linked to the coalition.

Martin Butcher, Oxfam’s Policy Advisor on Arms and Conflict, said in a statement, “Our analysis shows there is a pattern of violence against civilians, and all sides in this conflict have not done enough to protect civilian life, which they are obligated to do under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The intensity of these attacks would not have been possible without a ready supply of arms. That is why it’s vital the UK government and others must immediately stop the arms sales that are fueling war in Yemen.”

The British government’s rules, adopted in 2014 when it signed the Arms Trade Treaty, prohibit arms sales where there is a “clear risk” that a weapon “might” be used in a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). However, the UK government has repeatedly rejected calls from the United Nations and other international bodies to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite overwhelming evidence that the coalition has repeatedly breached IHL.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) recently launched a lawsuit to end the British government’s multi-billion pound arms sales, including Typhoon fighter jets, missiles, bombs, and ongoing maintenance and support, for use in the Saudi Arabia and UAE-led war in Yemen. The UK government’s supply of arms to Saudi Arabia has continued to promote and protect weapons sales, with CAAT estimating that the UK has supplied arms worth over £23 billion to Saudi Arabia since the war in Yemen began in April 2015.

The report comes as the UN estimates that the protracted war in Yemen has claimed the lives of 377,000 Yemenis, with 150,000 people dying directly as a result of the conflict, and the rest from “a lack of food or access to healthcare, as well as by the lack of basic infrastructure to provide these services.” As a result, 4.3 million people have been displaced, with a cholera outbreak that has raged since 2016 and the pandemic further contributing to the dire conditions faced by the Yemeni people.

The UK government’s supply of arms to the Saudi-led war on Yemen has led to widespread and deep hostility among the British public towards the government’s policies. In response to growing criticism, a Court of Appeal ruling in June 2019, following legal action by CAAT, concluded that the government’s decision-making process for granting export licences was “irrational” and “unlawful.” This led the government to stop issuing export licences for weapons that could be used in the war in Yemen and to review how these weapons were used, as well as to ensure that future arms sales complied with the government’s own rules and procedures.

However, in July 2020, then Trade Secretary Liz Truss resumed arms sales, claiming any violations of IHL were only “isolated incidents.” Since then, the British government has licensed at least £2.2 billion additional weapons sales to the coalition, while cutting its 2021-22 aid to Yemen by more than half.

CAAT’s latest case in the High Court challenges the government’s claims that there were only a “small number” of IHL violations by coalition forces that did not form part of a “pattern,” citing overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The evidence seems pretty conclusive. The UK government risks reputational and moral damage if it continues to arm Saudi Arabia. The need for post-Brexit trade deals are great, but is this a price too high?