This week, anti-arms trade activists are in the Court of Appeal trying to stop UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. These weapons have played a central role in creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
March 26 made it four years since Saudi-led forces began a brutal bombardment of Yemen. That same day, Saudi forces bombed a hospital, killing eight people, including five children. It was one of many appalling abuses that has been inflicted on Yemen. According to the United Nations, the war has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
It is a war that has been armed and supported every step of the way by the UK Government. UK-made weapons have played a fundamental role in enabling the war. Right now, UK-trained pilots are flying UK-made fighter jets and dropping UK made bombs.
In total, the Government has licensed almost £5 billion worth of military equipment to the Saudi regime since the bombing began. Despite the destruction, it is presently engaged in negotiations to sell even more aircraft.
There can be no doubt that these weapons are doing serious damage. Over 60,000 people have been killed as a result of the violence. According to the UN, Saudi-led airstrikes are the leading cause of conflict-related deaths.
A thorough and detailed recent report from Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni based human rights monitoring group, linked specific UK-made weapons to specific attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Far more important than the origins of specific weapons in specific attacks is the overall impact of the bombing campaign. The war has the caused mass displacement of people. Half of the population, 14 million people, need aid, with 130 children under 5 dying of hunger and preventable diseases every day.
According to the UK’s arms export criteria, sales should not be allowed when there is a “clear risk” that the items “might” be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. By any common-sense interpretation of the rules, sales to Saudi Arabia should never have been allowed.
If, as the government claims, these rules don’t prevent arms sales to Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s most repressive regimes, using UK-made planes and missiles in bombing that has killed thousands of people, destroyed schools and hospitals, targeted funerals, weddings and food warehouses – then what would they prevent?
No matter how terrible the situation has become, Government Ministers have done everything they can to continue the sales. Last month the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, went as far as writing an article in which he claimed it would be “morally bankrupt” to stop selling weapons. You read that correctly, he said it would be wrong to STOP arming Saudi forces.
The extent of Hunt and the Government’s desire to please the Saudi dictatorship and the arms companies was made clear last month, when Hunt wrote to the German Government urging it to reconsider its recent embargo on arms transfers to Saudi forces.
There is no doubt that the interests of arms companies are key to Government thinking. Last weekend it was revealed that Liam Fox followed up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by meeting with the UK’s largest arms company, BAE Systems, to discuss UK policy on the murder, and BAE’s interests in Saudi Arabia.
This morning, the Court of Appeal began its consideration of the legality of these arms sales, following a case brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade. Over the days ahead the judges will forensically examine our claim and the Government response to it.
The case follows a 2017 High Court judgement, which found in the Government’s favour. In 2018, we were given permission to appeal the verdict. The stakes are high, and there is a lot riding on the result.
If our case is successful, then it will set a vital international precedent, and could play a major role in changing UK arms export policy. Equally, if it is unsuccessful then it will be regarded by the UK and other arms dealing governments as a green-light to continue pouring weapons into the war.
All of the polling shows that the overwhelming majority of people in the UK agree that these arms sales are immoral, and we are confident that the Court of Appeal will agree that they are also illegal.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk