28/06/2016 12:25 BST | Updated 29/06/2017 06:12 BST

Ending UK Complicity in Saudi Violence


Saudi Arabia is by far the world's biggest buyer of UK arms. As I write this, the UK trained Saudi Arabian air force could be flying over Yemen in UK supplied aircraft and dropping UK produced bombs on the people below.

This Thursday, the High Court will determine if a legal action, brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade, represented by human rights lawyers Leigh Day, will be allowed to proceed to judicial review.

We will be asking the court to consider the legality of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in light of the humanitarian catastrophe Saudi forces have unleashed throughout their 15 month long bombardment of Yemen.

The results have been catastrophic, with the UK government having been shamefully complicit right from the start. Over 6000 people have been killed in a campaign that has destroyed vital infrastructure and left 80% of the population in need of aid. The British Red Cross has said that the conflict has left the country on 'the precipice of disaster.'

Earlier this year, a UN expert panel accused Saudi Arabia of "widespread and systematic" attacks on civilian targets. Its report documented 119 sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and reported starvation being used as a war tactic. Similarly, reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the Saudi air force of violating IHL.

Yet, rather than listening to the experts and ending the arms sales, the UK government has pledged to "support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat." It has certainly stayed true to its promise, having provided military and political support, extensive training and licensed over £2.8 billion worth of arms since the bombing began, including a £1.7 billion licence for fighter jets and more than £1 billion worth of missiles and bombs.

The arms sales haven't just been immoral; they have been illegal, flying in the face of national and European arms control legislation. UK arms export guidelines are very clear, requiring the Government to deny export licences where there is a "clear risk" that equipment "might" be used in serious violations of international humanitarian law. Surely this should prohibit any arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

Calls for the government to suspend arms sales have come from all quarters, including European Parliament, Save the Children, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, the House of Commons' International Development Committee, the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, as well as MPs from the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP.

Despite widespread condemnation and opposition, the Government's response has been a mixture of denial, excuses and delays. It has refused to even back the growing calls for an independent investigation into the conduct of the war, preferring to take the word of the Saudi government when it says that everything is in order, and insisting that it is "satisfied that export licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK's export licensing criteria."

The UK should never have been arming Saudi Arabia in the first place. Not only does it make a mockery of the its rhetoric about promoting human rights and democracy, it also strengthens its relationship with one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the world.

The Saudi government hasn't just bought arms and support, it has also bought silence and compliance.That's why, only nine months ago, we saw the contemptible but ultimately unsurprising revelations that UK diplomats had lobbied and campaigned behind the scenes for Saudi Arabia to Chair the UN Human Rights Council.

For decades now, UK governments of all political colours have worked hand in glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities, continuing to sell arms and political support while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses that are being carried out every single day.

The Saudi Royal Family's influence is imprinted all over Whitehall's approach to arms sales and the Middle East. Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop a corruption investigation into arms exports to Saudi, David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with Royalty, and Prince Charles sword dancing to secure sales for BAE Systems.

If the government cares for the human rights of those in Saudi, Yemen or the wider region then it must finally end its support for the Saudi military and its complicity in Saudi state violence.

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