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UK: Campaigners 'shut out' of case against arms sales to Saudi Arabia

CAAT said it was 'alarmed' by the government's lawyer saying the UK did not deserve criticism for its weapons harming Yemenis, as they were not under its jurisdiction
A man salvages some belongings following overnight air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, targeting the Yemeni capital Sanaa, on 26 March 2022 (AFP)

A British High Court denied anti-arms campaigners access to the last day of a case being heard against arms sales to Saudi Arabia after the UK said it did not deserve criticism for its weapons harming Yemenis as they were not governed by its jurisdiction. 

Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) said the final session of their case entered closed sessions on Thursday, with neither CAAT nor its lawyers allowed access to the material discussed. 

'It is alarming that there appears to be so much closed evidence that we are not allowed to see'

- Emily Apple, CAAT

Special advocates acting on behalf of CAAT will instead be arguing for the campaign group during this part of the case as they have the required security clearance to do so. 

But despite acting on their behalf, the special advocate is legally bound not to disclose what was discussed or presented during the closed court sessions. 

"It is alarming that there appears to be so much closed evidence that we are not allowed to see, including even the figure for the 'small number' of possible IHL violations the government claims to have identified," said Emily Apple, spokesperson for CAAT. 

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"This means we are not able to analyse what's being said and the people in Yemen are prevented from knowing exactly how this government justifies the arms sales that have devastated their lives. This is not justice."

The campaign group also criticised Britain's "contempt" for Yemenis after the government's lawyer James Eadie argued that harm to civilians did not require "anxious scrutiny" as the people facing harm in Yemen are not in Britain.

"[Eadie] essentially said it doesn't matter that Yemeni people are being killed because they don't have the same legal protections that require scrutiny under British law," said Apple.  


During the second day of open court proceedings, Eadie added that the government was "better placed than NGOs" and UN expert panels to determine whether Riyadh adheres to international law. 

"Unlike the [British] government, the UN and NGOs will not have knowledge of the general attitude and relevant diplomatic and military expertise needed to assess the facts and how they make a judgment," said Eadie.

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But CAAT's lawyer, Ben Jaffey, hit back at Eadie's claim and noted that the UN panel of experts that Eadie questioned was comprised of prominent military experts, including a former British colonel who teaches international law at Westpoint University, and a Canadian professor who specialises in international law. 

"In the submissions, there was slight criticism of the UN panels in relation to expertise relating to targeting... but these are people who are not unversed in military matters," said Jaffey. 

The case concluded on Thursday with a judgment expected to come out in two to six months.  

According to Oxfam, the UK has licensed at least £7.9bn ($9.6bn) in arms to Saudi Arabia across 547 licences since 2015, including Tornado and Typhoon aircraft and bombs. 

CAAT says the true value of arms sales could be more than £23bn (around $28bn) when additional "open licensees" are taken into account. 

A previous court challenge by CAAT in 2019 forced the UK government to suspend arms sales.

But after an internal review, sales resumed in 2021 on the basis that the breaches of humanitarian law were "isolated incidents". 

The UK government has recently refused to release information in response to freedom of information requests filed by Middle East Eye about arms sales to Saudi Arabia, following the coalition's 2016 bombing of a crowded funeral hall in Sanaa, one of the deadliest of the war.

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