Pressure mounts on British lawmakers to halt arms sales to the Saudi Kingdom
September 8, 2016

The UK government is facing increasing pressure to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia over continued concerns of breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Yemen.

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Yemeni children stand amid the rubble of a building damaged in an airstrike by Saudi Arabia on the capital, Sana’a, on July 13, 2015. (© AFP Photo/Mohammed Huwais)

The BBC Newsnight programme reported a leaked draft report by the cross-party Committee on Arms Export Controls which said that the UK should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia while actions in Yemen are investigated, also stating that it is “highly likely that weapons had been used to violate IHL and human rights laws”.

The report presents a stark contrast to a statement by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson earlier this week, in which he defended the arms sales and said the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen is not “in clear risk” of IHL violations.

Meanwhile, PM Theresa May reportedly raised concerns over the deteriorating situation in Yemen, when she met with Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, during the G20 summit in China. But while she said she urged the Saudis to “properly investigate”, she went on to stress the importance of the UK-Saudi relationship and its role in fighting terrorism and keeping “people on the streets of Britain safe.”

May’s and Johnson’s defence of the arms sales are in line with earlier trends by the British government, which has appeared to be in denial over irrefutable evidence of human rights violations in Yemen. In February this year, the Government told Parliament that it had assessed that there had not been any breach of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition only to backtrack its statement in July, stating that there had been no such assessment.

Speaking in Chathan House on September 7th, Saudi Foreign Minister Al Jubeir defended the Saudi campaign as legitimate defence against Houthi hostilities, stating that the Saudi policy in Yemen is to end the war “that has led to attacks on our country”. Adding that the Houthis constitute a coup government “with an airforce and ballistic missiles at our border”, allied with Hezbollah and Iran – an insight into the sectarian character of the on-going struggles in Yemen and the wider Middle East.

Since early 2015, a Saudi led coalition has been launching airstrikes in neighbouring Yemen to counter advances by the Houthi rebels – who have control over Sana’a – and to reinstate ousted president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Since the start of the campaign however, overwhelming evidence coming out of Yemen has shown the targeting of hospitals, schools, and weddings causing tremendous civilian suffering.

“For 18 months a devastating war has raged in Yemen killing and injuring over 10,000 civilians and forcing more than 3 million people to flee their homes. Air strikes and shelling have destroyed homes, hospitals and schools with little regard for the people inside them. The UK has fueled this war with arms sales to Saudi Arabia in full knowledge of the violation of the rules of war and in flagrant disregard is its own laws and international law. It needs to stop immediately these arms sales,” said Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam Country Director in Yemen.

Yet this evidence seems to not be enough for the UK to reconsider its arms exports. Last year the British government approved 165 export licenses to Saudi Arabia worth nearly £3bn – not refusing any standard licenses to the Kingdom in the first nine months of 2015. Additionally, the UK has also confirmed its support and maintenance for UK- supplied equipment, with Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia (ATT Monitor).

Control Arms recently published an update to our case study on Yemen and arms transfers, detailing multiple ATT States Parties and Signatories who are in violation of the ATT through their arms deals with Saudi Arabia, and calls on all governments to stop arms transfers to warring parties in Yemen immediately.