UK arms sales and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Robert Wilcox

The civil war in Yemen has led to the world’s “largest humanitarian crisis”, according to the United Nations. Despite this sobering statement, western media coverage of the civil war, and the resulting humanitarian crisis, has been fleeting. The figures, however, warrant being emblazoned on every newspaper’s front page. Civilian casualties are in excess of 18,000. Around four million people have been forced to leave their homes. Approximately 24 million people (80% of the population) are in need of humanitarian assistance, of whom approximately 12 million are children. Many are unaware of the UK’s role in this crisis. But the time to confront the unpalatable truth that UK arms sales have helped to make this all possible is long overdue. 

Hostilities in Yemen broke out in 2014, when the Houthi rebel movement, comprised largely of Shia Muslims, succeeded in overthrowing President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government. Saudi Arabia, where Sunni Muslims constitute the vast majority of the population, was concerned that this would enable Iran, its regional rival and a country predominantly populated by Shia Muslims, to establish a presence in Yemen. In 2015, it formed a coalition with other Sunni-majority states, ostensibly to reinstate the government. This Saudi-led coalition has since launched over 21,000 air strikes against Yemen and imposed a blockade on the country, resulting in a huge shortage of food, water and medical supplies. 

From the very beginning, the Saudi-led coalition has received the backing of the UK. This went far beyond an endorsement of the coalition’s objectives; the UK granted export licences for the sale of arms to the coalition’s members, provided them with military personnel and supplied them with the aircraft to be used in bombing campaigns. It is difficult to ascertain the true value of arms sales under UK export licences since 2015; while official figures show that £6.4 billion worth of arms have been sold to the coalition, this does not account for arms sold under “open licences”. This type of licence does not require the cost to be logged. The actual cost of arms sales could, therefore, be much greater and, indeed, it would certainly appear to be so given that BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms manufacturer, has sold £15 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015. 

The Saudi-led coalition has committed flagrant breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL), the body of law which, amongst other aims, seeks to safeguard non-combatants in an armed conflict. A 2016 UN Panel Report found that “the coalition had conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects … including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes”. This could not have been made possible without UK military assistance. According to a BAE Systems employee, speaking to Channel 4’s Dispatches, “[i]f we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky”. 

In the case of R (on the application of Campaign Against the Arms Trade) v Secretary of State for International Trade [2019] EWCA Civ 1020, the Court of Appeal declared that the UK government’s grant of export licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia was “irrational and therefore unlawful”. This ruling was underpinned by the finding that the UK government had decided, or implemented a policy change to the effect, “that there would be no assessment of past violation of IHL” in determining whether the licences should be granted. One would think this is a particularly important piece of information to take into account. The fact that the UK government did not is, frankly, nothing short of disgraceful and demonstrates outright contempt for human suffering. Apparently, it is the considered view of the UK government that we should not concern ourselves with the deliberate targeting of civilians, or civilian infrastructure, when we are exporting weaponry to other states. 

Rather than accept the Court of Appeal’s ruling, however, the UK government sought, and was granted, permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. It also requested that judgment be stayed so that it could continue to sell arms in the meantime. This utterly shameless move beggars belief. The stay on the judgment was not granted, but the case is shortly due to be heard by the Supreme Court. It would be complacent to think that the Supreme Court will make the same ruling. Not because there is any doubt surrounding the evidence but because of the limited circumstances in which the courts can intervene in UK foreign policy. The ground for judicial review that is being advanced is rationality; i.e. no rational decision-maker would have made this decision without obtaining and considering certain information. This is not a straightforward question because, although it is one in which morality can factor, courts are constitutionally required to give substantial deference to the UK government when it comes to matters of domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, it is possible, under the law, for a minister to continue to sell arms to the Saudi-led coalition so long as they can merely show that they did consider past violations of IHL. Nothing we have seen from the UK government so far suggests that doing so would cause them to rethink its decision to grant export licences for arms sales. 

The UK has blood on its hands. Please write to your MP now, asking them to: (1) oppose the waste of taxpayer’s money on a morally abhorrent legal challenge; and (2) condemn a policy which has helped to bring about the deaths of thousands of civilians, widespread starvation and the worst cholera epidemic in modern history.

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