UK: arms to Saudi Arabia ruling welcomed as 'rare piece of good news for Yemen'

© © Amnesty International UK

Ruling is first time UK court has acknowledged risks of continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia 

UK has sold more than £4bn of arms to Saudi Arabia since Yemen conflict began

‘We welcome this judgment as a major step towards preventing further bloodshed’ - Lucy Claridge

Amnesty International has welcomed a judgment from the Court of Appeal today which has found that the UK Government’s decision to continue licensing exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia is unlawful.

The ruling came in a judicial review brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), which was joined by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch UK. 

Lucy Claridge, Amnesty International’s Director of Strategic Litigation, said: 

“This judgment is a rare piece of good news for the people of Yemen. 

“During four years of devastating war the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen, flattening homes, schools and hospitals in indiscriminate airstrikes.

“This is the first time that a UK court has acknowledged the risks of continuing to lavish Saudi Arabia with military equipment for use in Yemen. We welcome this judgment as a major step towards preventing further bloodshed.

“We call upon the Secretary of State to undertake this review as a matter of urgency and believe it should result in suspension.

“We hope that this marks the end of this chapter of shameful impunity and leads to increased scrutiny of other major arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia, such as France and the US. We continue to call for the immediate suspension of all arms transfers to all parties to the conflict for use in Yemen.”

The importance of NGO research as evidence 

A crucial aspect that the Court of Appeal emphasised is the importance of research by Amnesty, other NGOs and the UN as authoritative evidence of the risks of continuing to license arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which the Secretary of State must now properly take into account in licensing decisions. On the question of evidence of whether past violations are a relevant consideration when assessing whether there is a real risk of future violation, the court said:

“In our view that is obviously correct. How could it reasonably be otherwise?”

As a result of this judgment, the Secretary of State’s decisions not to suspend current licensing exports and to continue to grant further licences will be quashed. He has undertaken not to grant any new licences for export of arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia for possible use in the conflict in Yemen until those decisions have been re-taken on the correct legal basis, unless he applies for and gets deferral of the court’s order. 

Amnesty research on Yemen

Extensive and credible reports, including Amnesty’s own research in Yemen, have demonstrated that equipment and weapons similar to the ones exported by the UK, including British-made weapons, have repeatedly been used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes. According to publicly-available information, Saudi Arabia has not adequately investigated such violations, nor has it held those responsible for any breaches to account. As such, Amnesty considers that there is a clear risk that authorising further arms exports would lead to further serious violations in Yemen, and therefore would be counter to the UK’s obligations under domestic and international law.

Four years of UK arms sales

During the past four years, Amnesty has repeatedly called on the UK Government to halt all arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the clear risk that they will be used to carry out violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. 

Since the conflict began in March 2015, the UK has sold more than £4bn of arms to Saudi Arabia, including more than two dozen Eurofighter Typhoon war planes. The real value of the sales may be far higher, as large quantities of arms equipment are sold to the Saudi air force by UK companies like BAE Systems and Raytheon under so-called “open” export licences which do not provide figures, making it impossible to assess the scale of all the arms sold over this period. 

To mark the four-year point of the Yemen conflict in March, Amnesty activists took a replica Typhoon plane to Parliament in protest at the UK’s continuing arms sales to Riyadh. Amnesty also took a 56,000-signature petition addressed to Liam Fox to the Department for International Trade in Whitehall. 

Amnesty has previously said that UK ministers were “signing a death warrant for the people of Yemen” through their arms sales to Saudi Arabia. 

Other countries suspend arms sales

Several countries - including the Netherlands, Belgium (Flemish region) and Greece - have partly or totally suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Other countries - such as Austria, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland - have put in place restrictive measures on exports to Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, several European states also announced they would be suspending arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, including Germany, Norway, Finland and Denmark.

Judicial review

The judicial review was brought by CAAT in 2016 against the UK Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. CAAT has challenged the legality of the UK Government’s decision to continue to issue licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, despite the clear risk that the weapons could be used for violations of international law in Yemen. The case was originally heard by the High Court in February 2017, and Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch UK intervened at that stage. The court dismissed CAAT’s case and ruled on 10 July 2017 that the Government was not acting unlawfully in continuing to authorise arms exports to Saudi Arabia. In May 2018, CAAT was given permission to launch an appeal, which was heard in April 2019 and which the Court of Appeal ruled on today. Amnesty’s joint intervention focused on how a clear risk is determined, the authoritative nature of NGO research reports and the value such research has in making such a determination.  

Amnesty and others have documented how all sides to the conflict in Yemen have committed serious breaches of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes. This includes the Huthi armed group and allied forces which have also indiscriminately fired explosive munitions with wide-area effects - including mortars and artillery shells - into residential areas, killing and injuring civilians.