Campaigners warn that British weapons could be used to kill or injure civilians in Yemen
Human rights campaigners have begun an attempt to overturn a high court judgment that allows the British government to continue to export arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade brought the case against Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, seeking permission to appeal against a decision last July that granting licences for the export of arms from the UK to Saudi Arabia was not unlawful. CAAT has warned that British weapons could be used to kill or injure Yemeni civilians.
Since the bombing of the war-torn country began in March 2015, the UK has licensed £4.6bn of arms to the Saudi regime, including £2.7bn of ML10 licences for aircraft, helicopters and drones, and £1.9bn of ML4 licences for grenades, bombs and missiles. Last month, Unicef reported that thousands of children had been killed during the conflict.
The protesters claim that the decision to grant the licences breached UK arms export policy, which states that the licences cannot be granted if there is a “clear risk” the arms might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
Earlier this month, the UN declared the three-year war in Yemen to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people in desperate need of aid and protection. A Saudi-led bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in the country has destroyed infrastructure including schools and hospitals.
In January 2016, a UN panel of experts accused Saudi forces of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets. The British government has confirmed that it is tracking 350 possible breaches of international humanitarian law, but has yet to suspend any military licences to Saudi Arabia.
Part of the hearing at the court of appeal in London on Thursday scrutinised the various sources of information used by the UK government to decide whether or not Riyadh had breached international humanitarian law in its use of British weapons. Part was held in public and part in closed session, where sensitive intelligence matters were aired.
Andrew Smith of CAAT said: “Thousands of people have been killed since the verdict last July, and the humanitarian situation has only got worse, yet the arms sales have continued. We believe that these arms sales haven’t just been immoral, they have also been illegal.”
Rosa Curling of Leigh Day, representing the campaign group in the case, said: “Where there is a clear risk UK arms might be used in the commission of serious violations of international law, arm sales cannot go ahead. The risk is very real. You need only look at the devastating reality of the situation there.”
James Eadie QC, representing Fox, told the court that if incidents of concern occurred, such as a strike on a Yemeni hospital by the Saudis, it would be taken seriously by the British government. “If we think there are still concerns that are live and ongoing, we seek to engage if we can to try to obtain further information,” he said.
The two court of appeal judges hearing the case, Lord Justice Irwin and Lord Justice Flaux, indicated that they are likely to reserve judgment.