Arming Saudi Arabia: Philip Hammond at the controls

Repeat after me: “We have some of the most stringent export controls anywhere in the world.” Got that? Sure? Let’s be safe, though, and check again. So listen carefully, it goes like this: “We have some of the most stringent export controls anywhere in the world.”

Easy, isn’t it? Now I think you’re ready. You too can be like the prime minister and his senior colleagues. So if anyone happens to ask you whether the UK is doing the right thing in selling billions of pounds worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia just remember those invaluable words: “We have some of the most stringent export controls anywhere in the world.”

This, the government’s mantra when it comes to answering questions about the wisdom of showering weapons on Saudi Arabia at the very same time that Saudi Arabia’s military bombardment of Yemen has killed thousands of civilians, seems about as credible as ... well, about as credible as many other things we’re told about the devastation in Yemen and the UK's part in it.

Effectively we’re being told: “Don’t worry about all those reports regarding Saudi bombing raids on Yemeni hospitals, schools and homes because there is no ‘deliberate targeting’ of such places” (such was the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s explanation to the House of Commons recently). As the bodies stack up in Yemeni mortuaries this may be some sort of solace for bereaved families who’ve suffered grievous losses as a result of such non-deliberate targeting. (Then again ... it may not).

Another thing we're being told is that UK officials are actually in the “control room” during Saudi military operations in Yemen. Despite its unsettling echo of Kubrick's Dr.Strangelove, UK and Saudi ministers presumably mean this to sound reassuring - “Look, don’t worry, we know you’ve heard about all those dead children in Yemen but we’ve got some highly-trained staff working very closely with our Saudi colleagues and ...”.  Er, and well nothing. Because the Ministry of Defence has also said that these unnamed, unquantified, and almost completely unexplained officials do not themselves decide on targeting. They merely advise on “best practice."

Reassured yet? Feeling better about the way this massive military operation to quell the Shia Houthi insurgency is being conducted?

Maybe not. But well, let's look at it another way. The UK was a leading light in the creation of the Arms Control Treaty (2014), an important international law designed to eliminate arms sales that fuel human rights abuse. When the UK signed on the dotted line of the treaty in April 2014 Foreign Secretary William Hague said it would “make the world safer, by placing human rights and international humanitarian law at the heart of decisions about the arms trade.” Stirring stuff. It was all about minimising risk. The guiding ideal was: we must always operate a safety-first principle. No arms exports where there was a credible risk of misuse. (The word “risk” crops up a lot in the actual text of the treaty).

Right. Fairly clear. But where does this leave things as regards that very biggest purchaser of UK-manufactured arms, Saudi Arabia? Surely, after the bloodbath in Yemen this is exactly the type of high-risk export the ATT was designed to halt? Er, yes, you would think so, wouldn’t you? (And certainly some of the most eminent lawyers in the UK think exactly this). But no! Mr Hague’s successor as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has another way of assessing the risk: he’s relying on Saudi Arabia itself to investigate allegations of indiscriminate and reckless aerial attacks by the Saudi-led collation in Yemen. When Mr Hammond’s FCO colleague Tobias Ellwood was asked in November how these “investigations” were progressing he could only say “they will be ongoing” (a curiously theoretical way of putting it: ARE they ongoing, or are they not?).

Meanwhile, away from possible investigations by a major party to the conflict, the weapons continue to flow from the UK to Saudi Arabia …

How does all this sound? A safe and sensible course of action? Perhaps it sounds OK in the Dr. Strangelove-like world of the FCO and the MoD, but then they appear to be desperate to justify weapons sales to Riyadh at almost any cost.

In just a year of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud's reign in Saudi Arabia, early hopes of reform (always misplaced?) have been completely dashed. We’ve seen mass executions, a string of dissidents jailed and of course the huge military campaign in Yemen (the latter spearheaded by the controversial young Defence Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman). Yet even all this doesn’t seem to have spooked the UK government. It lowered flags for Salman’s predecessor King Abdullah, and it seems to be lowering its voice - and its own self-proclaimed standards on arms sales - for King Salman.

But maybe we shouldn’t fret. As with the old reggae producers (King Tubby et al), we’ve apparently got our top people in the control room when it comes to the Saudi-Yemen onslaught (Philip Hammond, you might say, is “at the controls”). No, let’s stop worrying and learn to love the bombing campaign in Yemen. Now repeat after me, “We have some of the most stringent export controls ...”.


PS: if you remain stubbornly unconvinced by the UK governent's reassurances over why they are arming Saudi Arabia, you may want to call on David Cameron to ... halt arms sales to the country.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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