Campaigners seek to overturn Liz Truss’s resumption of Saudi arms sales | Arms trade
Anti-arms campaigners will seek to overturn a decision by Liz Truss to resume UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, arguing she ignored a pattern of bombing civilians by the country’s air force in Yemen .
A judicial review brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) begins in the High Court on Tuesday, the latest step in a long-running battle over the legality of a lucrative trade worth more than £23 billion since the war started in Yemen.
Emily Apple, a spokeswoman for CAAT, accused the British government of being “more concerned with profits than war crimes”, and her case is expected to detail a series of civilian deaths caused by airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition.
Britain is the second largest supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia after the US, having sold the Royal Saudi Air Force Typhoon and Tornado jets, parts and ammunition, notably Paveway IV bombs, Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles.
The group’s lawyers will argue before a judge that Truss, the then trade secretary, was wrong to conclude in July 2020 that the UK could resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia for weapons that could be used in Yemen because there were only “isolated” incidents” of violations of humanitarian law.
Five months before Truss acted, on February 15, 2020, 34 people were killed, including 26 children, when airstrikes hit a civilian gathering at the site of a fighter jet crash in Al Hayjah, Al Maslub District. A further 19 were injured, 18 of whom were children.
Monitoring groups say planes from the Saudi-led coalition that has been involved in the war in Yemen since 2015 have repeatedly killed or wounded civilians in reckless bombing that amounts to a war crime in each case. British law does not allow arms exports if there is a “clear risk” that war crimes could result from the use of the arms.
However, the UK has repeatedly said the clear risk test was not met – and that it takes its arms licensing responsibilities seriously. Earlier this month, a spokesperson for the Department for International Trade (DIT) said: “We carefully consider all our export applications against a rigorous risk assessment framework and monitor all licenses closely and continuously as standard.”
The deadly airstrikes continued until recently. Oxfam, which intervened in the case, released a report this year which concluded that at least 87 civilians had been killed by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen using weapons delivered between January 2021 and February 2022 by the United Kingdom and the USA have been provided.
The war in Yemen, which has involved several regional powers since it began in 2014, has been described as the cause of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. A total of 8,983 civilians were killed by all sides in the fighting, according to the Yemen Data Project.
Martin Butcher, a policy adviser at Oxfam, said the charity’s research concluded that airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition were responsible for a large proportion of the attacks. “This is why it is vital that the legality of UK arms sales is investigated and arms sales must be stopped immediately,” he added.
British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were previously ruled illegal by the Court of Appeal in June 2019, following a previous challenge by CAAT. The court concluded that British ministers had made “no attempt” to determine whether there was a systemic pattern of bombing of civilians on the part of the Saudis.
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Arms sales were suspended for a year, pending Truss’s announcement. They have been hastily restarted, with £1.4bn worth of arms recorded in UK export figures in summer 2020, and have continued despite the US announcing a partial arms export ban to Riyadh.
Shortly after becoming president in February 2021, Joe Biden said the US would stop selling offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia because of the situation in Yemen, but has since allowed the sale of more than $4 billion worth of defense systems. Relations between the two countries remain cool.
Decisions on the licensing of British arms rest with the trade secretary, but the minister takes advice from the foreign secretary of the day. Previous documents showed Boris Johnson recommended in August 2016 that the UK allow Saudi Arabia to buy British bomb parts days after an airstrike on a potato factory in Yemen killed 14 people.
CAAT said he should not have come to court again, given the previous Court of Appeal’s ruling. Apple accused Truss of “paying lip service” to reviewing the legality of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and by resuming the trade the former minister was engaging in “nothing but a feeble pretense to continue to to fill the pockets of arms dealers at the expense of people’s lives”.
The DTI said it would not comment on legal action.