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Next Month Campaigners Will Put UK Arms Sales To Saudi Arabia On Trial

15/01/2017 18:22 GMT | Updated 15/01/2017 18:22 GMT
Łukasz Szczepański via Getty Images

As I write this Yemeni services will still be clearing up the damage caused last week when a Saudi air strike hit a primary school. Five people were killed in the strike, including two children, but coverage of their deaths has been muted.

Many refer to Yemen as a 'forgotten war', and the scale of death and destruction have become such a daily occurrence that few major broadcasters are even mentioning it any longer.

It's been almost two years since Saudi forces began their bombing campaign. In that time schools, hospitals, homes, markets and even a refugee camp have become the scenes of massacres. The death toll has steadily climbed, surpassing 10,000 last August, with the political and military stalemate leaving no end in sight for the millions of civilians caught in the middle.

The terrible fallout of the bombardment has been condemned by the United Nations, the European Parliament and human rights researchers and aid agencies on the ground. The bloodshed has been so terrible that even the United States government, the biggest arms dealer in the world, has indicated that it will reduce exports to the Saudi regime.

The controversy has made its way to Whitehall, where growing opposition from NGOs and parliamentarians has forced government ministers to concede that Saudi forces have used UK cluster bombs in their onslaught.

Cluster bombs are among the cruellest and most deadly weapons that can be used in warfare. When the bombs are dropped they open up in mid-air to release hundreds of sub-munitions, which can cover large areas. The sub-munitions can last for years and kill indiscriminately.

Unfortunately UK complicity doesn't end there, with UK sold fighter jets being flown over Yemen by UK-trained personnel and dropping UK-made bombs. The arms sales haven't slowed down: in fact the UK has licensed over £3.3billion worth of arms since the bombing began.

The legality of these exports is the subject of a Judicial Review that is being heard next month, following an application by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

On paper, UK arms export licensing criteria are very clear. They say that licences should not be granted if there is a "clear risk" that equipment might be used in violation of International Humanitarian Law. By any reasonable understanding this should end all arms exports to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.

The application for the review focused on clear, compelling and widespread allegations of Saudi Arabia violating international humanitarian law. It also raised serious questions about the process behind the decision that allowed them to be licensed in the first place.

This will be the first time UK arms exports have been examined in this way, and the outcome will be critical. If the application is successful then it will set a vital precedent and could be instrumental in changing UK arms export policy.

Regardless of the outcome, we have already how weak and broken UK arms export controls really are. A brutal dictatorship can create a humanitarian catastrophe, kill thousands of civilians and flout international law, and the UK continues arming it. Instead of following its own rules on arms sales, the government has prioritised arms company profits over human rights.

The issue goes wider than Saudi Arabia. A recent investigation by CAAT and the Independent found that the UK government is the second biggest arms export in the world. Two thirds of these arms are going to the Middle East, with many going to countries on the UK's own human rights watch list.

We are always being told that the UK stands for human rights and democracy, but it is actively pouring weapons into some of the most oppressive and unstable regimes in the world.

Whatever happens next month it won't be the end of the debate. As long as terrible crimes are being committed with UK weapons and with our government's support, this campaign will continue. It's not just the arms sales that need to end, it is also the hypocrisy and the mindset that has allowed them to happen in the first place.

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