The British government will resume weapons exports to Saudi Arabia despite identifying some “possible” breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL) by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Secretary of Trade Liz Truss said in a statement on Tuesday that the government estimates that there is no “clear risk” of breaches of IHL by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
A London court last year banned the UK from approving new military export licences to Saudi Arabia and forced it to reassess decisions on existing ones.
Liz Truss said that an analysis of reports of incidents where Saudi Arabia may have broken IHL has revealed no determination by Riyadh to disobey the law nor “systemic weaknesses” which may lead to new breaches.
According to the cabinet minister, some “credible incidents of concern” related to Saudi military actions in Yemen have been classified as “possible” violations of the law, but the UK government views them as “isolated incidents”.
“In the light of all that information and analysis, I have concluded that, notwithstanding the isolated incidents which have been factored into the analysis as historic violations of IHL, Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with IHL,” Truss noted.
“On that basis, I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL.”
In a follow-up notice to exporters, ministers said they would now begin to clear the backlog of licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that has formed over the year since the 2019 court order.
The announcement came just a day after the Foreign Secretary promised that the UK would introduce sanctions against “people who have committed the gravest human rights violations”.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading a military coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen on behalf of the local internationally-recognised government. According to independent estimates by human rights groups, at least 8,600 civilians have been killed in the country since the war started, including in Saudi-led airstrikes.
UN experts have suggested that all sides in the conflict, which has killed over 100,000 people, may have committed war crimes. The Saudi-led coalition denies the allegations.
The 2019 judgement concluded that the UK government had not determined whether the Saudi coalition had violated humanitarian law and “made no attempt to do so”. Meanwhile, the UK has licenced £5.3 billion ($7.5 billion) worth of arms for export to Saudi Arabia since the war started. These include $3.1 billion worth of licences relating to grenades, bombs, missiles and other ordinance. Truss admitted last September that the government had twice breached the court ban on new licences.
Campaigners have blasted the government’s decision to continue issuing licences. Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade described it as “disgraceful and morally bankrupt”, adding that it exposed the “rank hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy”.
“Even before the coronavirus hit, Yemen was already facing the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis and had seen its hospitals and clinics decimated in the conflict,” he added. “It’s nothing short of cruel that the government should take the decision to restart sales to Saudi Arabia at such a time.”