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Why Campaigners Are Threatening Legal Action to Stop UK Arms Exports to Saudi

21/01/2016 17:33 | Updated 22 January 2016
  • Andrew Smith Anti arms-trade activist and political campaigner

"In your country, you do no execute people, we respect it. In our country the death penalty is part of our laws and you have to respect this as it is the law" the Saudi foreign minister told Channel 4 News. The interview followed the announcement that the Saudi authorities had begun the year by executing 47 people, including political prisoners and Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric whose death fuelled the subsequent breakdown of Saudi and Iranian relations.

At the same time as trying to justify mass murder at home, the Saudi military has intensified the bombardment of Yemen. Over 5000 people have been killed in a bloody conflict that has destroyed vital infrastructure and left many without access to clean water or electricity. The destruction on the ground has exacerbated the ongoing civil war and created a power vacuum that has allowed the expansion of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

There is no doubt that the assault has been deadly and immoral, and now an increasing number of organisations are also questioning the legality of Saudi attacks and governments like the UK that are facilitating them.

In July 2015 the European Parliament passed a motion to "Condemn the air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition and the naval blockade it has imposed on Yemen." The motion continued "air strikes by the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen have killed civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law, which requires all possible steps to be taken to prevent or minimise civilian casualties."

One month later, Stephen O'Brien of the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported to the UN Security Council, that the "scale of human suffering [in Yemen] is almost incomprehensible." Condemning "attacks on residential areas and civilian infrastructure"; he asserted: "these attacks are in clear contravention of international humanitarian law."

These condemnations have been supported by a growing number of NGOs. Human Rights Watch , Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have all accused Saudi Arabia of breaking international humanitarian law. Commenting on the destruction of one of the first of three hospital facilities it has lost, Hassan Boucenine, Country Director of MSF said "the fact of the matter is it's a war crime. There's no reason to target a hospital. We provided [the Coalition] with all of our GPS coordinates."

The UK has supported the bombing in Yemen since day one. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, made this clear at the time, when he pledged to "support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat." Unfortunately he has been true to his word. UK fighter jets and bombs have been central to the destruction, and the government has licensed over £2.8 billion of arms to Saudi since the bombing began last March. Last week it was revealed that UK military personnel are working with their Saudi counterparts to coordinate bombing raids and choose targets.

Last month Philippe Sands QC of Matrix Chambers provided a legal opinion for Amnesty International and Saferworld that accused the UK of breaking the Arms Trade Treaty as well as EU and UK arms export policy by continuing to license arms to Saudi for use in Yemen.

The problem is less to do with legislation and more to do with a lack of political will. On paper the UK's licensing criteria is very clear. It says that licences should be revoked when there is a "clear risk" that equipment "might" be used in violation of international humanitarian law. This risk must be assessed at the time the licensing decision is made and monitored throughout the lifespan of a licence. By any reasonable interpretation this should necessitate the revoking of all current licences and prohibit all future arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Campaign Against Arms Trade and our lawyers at Leigh Day are threatening the UK government with legal action. We have called on the department of Business, Innovation & Skills to suspend all licences for arms exports to Saudi that can be used in Yemen and to hold a full review as to whether the export of military equipment is compatible with EU arms control legislation. If it doesn't, then we will be taking legal action.

When countries like the UK sell weapons it doesn't just facilitate the attacks they are used in, it also sends a message of support to the governments that carry them out. Countries like Saudi Arabia aren't just buying UK arms, they are also buying political support and very often silence about the human rights abuses they preside over. Changing this will take more than the cancellation of a few licences. It will need a complete overhaul of government foreign policy and an end to the hypocrisy at the heart of it.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

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