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Government breaking the law supplying arms to Saudi say leading lawyers

© Amnesty International

Philippe Sands QC and others submit damning legal opinion commissioned by Amnesty and Saferworld

'The UK has fuelled this appalling conflict through reckless arms sales which break its own laws and the global Arms Trade Treaty it once championed' - Kate Allen, Amnesty UK Director

The UK Government is breaking national, EU and international law and policy by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia in the context of its military intervention and bombing campaign in Yemen according to an analysis by eminent international law experts commissioned by Amnesty International and Saferworld, both members of the Control Arms coalition.

The lawyers, Professor Philippe Sands QC, Professor Andrew Clapham and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh of Matrix Chambers, conclude in their comprehensive legal opinion that, on the basis of the information available, the UK Government is acting in breach of its obligations arising under the UK’s Consolidated Criteria on arms exports, the EU Common Position on Arms Exports and the Arms Trade Treaty by continuing to authorise transfers of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia within the scope of those instruments, capable of being used in Yemen.

They conclude that “any authorisation by the UK of the transfer of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia… in circumstances where such weapons are capable of being used in the conflict in Yemen, including to support its blockade of Yemeni territory, and in circumstances where their end-use is not restricted, would constitute a breach by the UK of its obligations under domestic, European and international law.”

They also conclude that the UK Government can properly be deemed to have "actual knowledge... of the use by Saudi Arabia of weapons, including UK-supplied weapons, in attacks directed against civilians and civilians objects, in violation of international law", since at least May 2015.

The UK Government asserts that it is not taking an active part in the military campaign in Yemen. However, the UK has issued more than 100 licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia since the State began bombing Yemen in March 2015. For the period January to June 2015, licences for exports to Saudi Arabia were worth more than £1 ¾ billion, the vast majority of which (by value) appear to be for combat aircraft and air-delivered bombs for the use of the Royal Saudi Air Force.  

In 2013, David Cameron hailed the Arms Trade Treaty as a landmark agreement that would "save lives and ease the immense human suffering caused by armed conflict around the world." He said Britain should be proud of the role it had played in securing an agreement that would make the world safer for all.

Amnesty International UK Director, Kate Allen, said:

“The UK has fuelled this appalling conflict through reckless arms sales which break its own laws and the global Arms Trade Treaty it once championed.

“This legal opinion confirms our long-held view that the continued sale of arms from the UK to Saudi Arabia is illegal, immoral and indefensible.

“Thousands of civilians have been killed in Saudi-led airstrikes, and there’s a real risk that misery was ‘Made in Britain’.”

Saferworld Executive Director Paul Murphy said:

"UK Government policy on Yemen is in disarray. The UK gives aid to Yemen with one hand while supporting the destruction of the country with the other. 

“With the first face-to-face peace talks since the beginning of the Yemeni conflict happening this week, the UK Government should help turn a fragile ceasefire into a permanent peace by stopping its support to one side of the conflict.” 

“It’s time the UK acted as a peace broker, rather than an arms broker. The UK government must halt these arms sales immediately.”

Although the focus of their opinion was on the UK Government’s legal obligations regarding the authorisation regime for weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia, the lawyers underscored that all sides to the conflict in Yemen are accused of serious breaches of international law.

The conflict in Yemen has turned the country into one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.  Civilian targets including hospitals, schools, markets, grain warehouses, ports and a displaced persons camp have been hit in airstrikes by Saudi-led coalition forces. Since the conflict escalated in mid-March 2015, more than 5,800 people have been killed and tens of thousands wounded. 2.5 million have been forced to flee their homes.  Over 80 per cent of the population (21 million people) are in need of humanitarian aid, including two million children at risk of malnutrition.

All sides in the conflict are responsible for causing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.  The UK is not alone in sending arms to and supporting parties to the conflict. Several other countries, including France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Russia and the US have reportedly also supplied arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition now fighting in Yemen, with supplies to the Huthis clouded in secrecy.

The agencies called on the Government to immediately take five steps:

  • Suspend arms transfers and military support to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which could be used to commit or facilitate further serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian  law in Yemen
  • Carry out a thorough and independent investigation into UK arms sales and reported war crimes in Yemen
  • Make every possible diplomatic effort to help bring the conflict to an end
  • Continue to push for an end to the de facto blockade so that vital humanitarian and commercial supplies enter Yemen and reach those most in need.
  •  Fully implement the provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty, and encourage all other arms exporters to do the same


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