UK activists demand end to Saudi Arabia, UAE arms sales

Rights group and legal experts say arming Riyadh and Abu Dhabi makes the UK complicit in alleged war crimes.

File picture shows senior army commander Abdullah al-Sahian, who commands the Saudi forces in Yemen''s southern port city of Aden, talking to his soldiers in their base in Aden
Saudi soldiers deployed for ground operations in southern Yemen [File: Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters]

London, England – Campaign groups and legal experts have called on the UK to end arm sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies, warning that continuing to do so may be in violation of international law.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR) said British manufactured weapons sold to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt were being used to carry out abuses in Yemen and Libya.

“[AOHR] is calling on the UK government to review its role in the sale of arms to a number of Arab governments that are known for gross human rights violation,” the statement read.

In the past three years, the UK has approved arms export licences to Saudi Arabia worth $4.7bn, $1.6bn to the UAE, and $208m to Egypt.

During that period, the countries have been involved both directly and indirectly in conflicts in Libya and Yemen, where they face accusations of war crimes and other abuses. 

READ MORE: Questions raised over $110bn arms deal to Saudi Arabia

“A Saudi-led coalition has killed hundreds of Yemenis, destroyed scores of homes in addition to obliterating most of Yemen’s core infrastructure,” the AOHR said, adding: “Saudi Arabia has also turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by UAE in southern parts of the country.”

“The UAE has bought the loyalty of several tribal leaders and formed militias that continue to commit war crimes,” the rights group said. 

Last week, a report by Human Rights Watch accused the UAE of operating secret prisons in Yemen where torture was commonplace, and of carrying out forcible disappearances of its opponents in the country.

In Libya, the UAE has transferred British-produced arms to the renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who is also accused of a raft of abuses, including indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and summary executions.

Legal case

Speaking at a news conference accompanying the AOHR statement, Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said the UK was complicit in alleged Saudi-led coalition abuses in Yemen.

“UK-made fighter jets are flying over Yemen, where they are being flown by UK-trained personnel and dropping UK-made bombs. The UK could not be any more complicit, ” he said.

“The war [in Yemen] has led to social breakdown, including the destruction of schools, hospitals, and even funerals have become the sites of brutal massacres.

“We believe that the UK’s conduct in arming and supporting this brutal bombardment has not just been immoral, it has also been illegal.”

CAAT is awaiting the verdict of a judicial review it lodged in February, which is aimed at halting British arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

Under both British and EU law, export licences must not be granted if there is clear risk that weapons could be used to contravene international law. 

We believe that the UK’s conduct in arming and supporting this brutal bombardment has not just been immoral, it has also been illegal

by Andrew Smith, Campaign Against Arms Trade

Human rights lawyer Sue Willman, who was also present at the event, said the UK was reluctant to accept the scale of evidence proving its weapons were being used to commit violations.

“The [UK] must deny export if it is clear that military technology might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law,” she said.

“I think the lesson of the CAAT case is that even when there’s overwhelming evidence of abuses, the UK government continues to claim that there’s no evidence, and then insist on filing secret evidence, making it harder for us to challenge it.”

Long standing ties

The UK is one of the top suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, signing major arms deals with the pair.

Under the Conservative government of John Major and the later Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the UK sold scores of Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets in exchange for oil shipments and tens of billions of pounds.

Those deals, known collectively as al-Yamamah, were riddled with accusations of corruption, with leading manufacturer BAE Systems accused of paying bribes worth tens of millions of dollars to Saudi officials to secure the purchases.

The deals were the subject of an investigation by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office, which was later dropped after intervention by Blair. 

The Saudi air force operates aircraft including this British-made Tornado fighter jet  [File:US Department of Defense]
The Saudi air force operates aircraft including this British-made Tornado fighter jet  [File:US Department of Defense]

While the current British government, under Prime Minister Theresa May, seems set to continue arms sales to Saudi Arabia, all major opposition parties are opposed to the transfer of arms.

Labour’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been an outspoken critic of arming Saudi Arabia and its involvement in Yemen.

The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, and Green Party are also opposed to weapons sales to the country.

In a heated exchange in parliament on Monday, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas asked Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson whether he was “proud” of his role in selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, which were later used in Yemen.

Johnson responded: “Of course a humanitarian disaster is taking place, but it is a folly and an illusion to believe that that humanitarian disaster is in any way the responsibility of the UK.”

War in Yemen

Saudi Arabia began its military intervention in Yemen in March 2015 after Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh took over large swaths of the country, including its capital, Sanaa.

The war has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 civilians, according to the UN, and has left it on the verge of famine with several urban centres besieged by either pro-rebel or pro-government forces.

The UN and rights groups have accused Riyadh and its allies of violating international law by targeting civilians, including the October 2016 bombing of a funeral procession in the Yemeni capital, which left at least 140 people dead and hundreds more wounded.

Source: Al Jazeera