The case brought on Tuesday by campaigners against the arms trade could force Britain to halt exporting missiles, bombs and jets in a move that some observers say could curtail Saudi air raids in Yemen within weeks.
“A halt to UK arms exports and engineering support would have a material effect on the Saudis being able to conduct their bombing missions,” said Anna Stavrianakis, senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex and an expert on the arms trade.
“Some reports suggest the Saudi bombing missions would have to stop within seven to 14 days. It would have a material effect on the peace process in Yemen.”
The UK has licensed at least 4.6 billion pounds ($6bn) worth of arms to Saudi forces since the bombing of Yemen began in 2015, and British weapons and military support – now accounting for half of the country’s arms exports – have become crucial to the war effort.
At the same time, there has been growing public disquiet about Britain’s role, with polls indicating that only six percent of people in the country now support arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) is attempting to overturn a 2017 ruling in the UK’s High Court that allowed arms suppliers to continue exporting weapons to the Saudis.
A halt to UK arms exports and engineering support would have a material effect on the Saudis being able to conduct their bombing missions.
CAAT insists the sales break UK laws blocking export licences if there is a clear risk of weapons being used in “serious violations” of international humanitarian law, and the Court of Appeal in London on Tuesday heard its bid to overturn the 2017 judgement.
“We are taking this action because we believe these sales aren’t just immoral, they are also illegal, and they are playing a central role in the bombardment and devastation which has followed,” said CAAT spokesman Andrew Smith.
“Right now, as we speak, UK-made jets are flying over Yemen being flown by UK-trained pilots and firing UK-made missiles and dropping UK-made bombs, and we have no doubt this is being used to destroy civilian infrastructure and kill civilians,” he said.
The crisis caused by the war in Yemen is described as the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, with nearly 10 million people at risk of starvation.
Human rights groups dismiss British government arguments that what it is doing is lawful, that it operates “robust” export controls, that its military advisers working with Saudi forces are not directing air raids, and that the Saudi-led intervention was endorsed by the United Nations.
In February, British ministers said they were providing an additional 200 million pounds ($261m) to Yemen to help feed 3.8 million people, bringing total UK humanitarian support to the war-torn country to 770 million pounds ($1bn), and had made strenuous efforts to support a political settlement to the conflict.
We are taking this action because we believe these sales aren't just immoral, they are also illegal...
Aid organisations such as Oxfam have said this “incoherent policy means that what it gives with one hand, it takes away with another” while other groups claim the UK is ignoring alleged Saudi war crimes.
“Saudi strategy appears to include directly targeting and pressuring the civilian population – targeting them militarily and pressuring them economically,” Stavrianakis said.
“Both of those things are illegal under international law, so no amount of being involved in the peace process and no amount of aid can compensate for that.”
If the CAAT appeal is not successful, Smith said, “the message this will send to dictatorships everywhere is that you can inflict the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world on another state, you can kill tens of thousands of people, destroy vital infrastructure all across the country, and the UK will still sell you arms.”
“What this case does is expose the utter hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy,” he added.
“We are constantly being told that the country stands up for human rights and democracy – and all the while it is arming and supporting some of the most brutal authoritarian regimes in the world, none more so than Saudi Arabia.”