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UK approved £3.3bn of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in first year of Yemen war

Exports of smart bombs, combat aircraft parts were approved in face of civilian deaths, international condemnation
UK-manufactured cluster bomblets gathered by activists in northern Yemen earlier this year (Amnesty International)

The UK government licensed arms exports worth £3.3bn ($4.2bn) to Saudi Arabia during the first 12 months of the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen, a campaign group has revealed.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade's analysis of government figures, released this week, shows the total is at least £500m more than previously thought.

From April 2015, the UK approved exports including so-called smart bombs, components for combat aircraft, armoured vehicles and communications equipment.

The government in Riyadh is the UK arms industry’s biggest customer and the figures show that the Middle East is the UK’s largest overall export market for weapons, including Eurofighter Typhoon jets that have dropped devastating 2,000-lb bombs in urban areas in Yemen.

More than 8,100 people are thought to have been killed in the conflict and earlier this year the UN decried the “carnage” caused by Saudi-led air strikes, saying the alliance was responsible for the vast majority of the civilian deaths in the conflict, although all armed groups have been accused of abuses.

Since the Saudi-led intervention, which has included support from Bahrain and the UAE, the UK government has faced intense criticism over its willingness to approve arms exports. 

Andrew Smith, of CAAT, which compiled the figures from official statistics, said: “UK arms have been central to the humanitarian crisis that has been unleashed on Yemen. If the new prime minister [Theresa May] wants to help the people of Yemen then she needs to break with the past, stop the arms sales and end the uncritical support for the Saudi regime.”

The new figures also show that the UK licensed £538m of weapons, including military training aircraft for the Royal Saudi Air Force, in the first quarter of 2016 alone, despite increasingly vocal international condemnation of the country’s bombing campaign in Yemen.

A deal for additional Hawk jet trainers came after a UN expert panel accused Saudi Arabia of violating international humanitarian law and a January cross-party appeal in parliament for arms sales to the oil-rich kingdom to be suspended.

The European Parliament has also voted to support an EU-wide embargo against Saudi Arabia, although the vote is not legally binding.

Smith added: “The UN has accused Saudi Arabian forces of violating international humanitarian law, the European Parliament has been calling for an arms embargo, but, as usual when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the UK government has focused on arms sales.”

Last month, CAAT won a legal challenge in the High Court in London to allow a judicial review over arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has denied that its operations cause civilian casualties, and in January announced that it was setting up a panel to investigate the allegations. The UK has a long history of exporting arms to Saudi Arabia, dating back to the 1980s, but the government has always insisted it follows strict rules and monitors the use of the weapons.  

However, this week Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was left facing growing calls to reverse UK policy after the government issued a correction, saying that it could not prove that international law had not be been violated, in spite of earlier claims that no breaches had taken place.

The correction followed pressure from opposition politicians and rights groups, who challenged then foreign secretary Phillip Hammond's ruling on Yemen and forced him to issue a statement retracting four written answers given to MPs and deleting two speeches by ministers in the Commons from the official record.

The new figures come after Middle East Eye revealed that Canadian and UK arms were used to kill an unarmed man in police raids in Saudi Arabia earlier this year. The UK government has refused to investigate whether UK arms are being used for internal repression.

Rights clampdown

Human rights campaigners have been quick to point out that the new figures have emerged as a prominent Bahrain activist faces 12 years in prison for tweets that criticized the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen.

The charges against Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, are a serious violation of his right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

Bahrain has been taking part in the Saudi-led strikes, which have included unlawful air attacks on markets, homes, hospitals and schools, according to the pressure group.

“Unlawful Saudi-led airstrikes bombed markets and hospitals, killing hundreds of civilians, but the person facing prison time is the one who criticized them,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at the group.

“The US and the UK, which have assisted the coalition, have a particular responsibility to insist that Bahrain drop the unlawful charges against Nabeel Rajab and immediately free him.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented 69 unlawful airstrikes by the coalition, some of which may amount to war crimes, that killed more than 900 civilians and hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, civilian businesses, and mosques. The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen also reported in January that it had “documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations” of the laws of war.

Rights groups, however, have also accused other armed factions on the ground of committing abuses, including torture, against opponents.

Eastern European arms pipeline

The extent of the UK’s exports to Saudi Arabia emerged after a year-long investigation by a team of reporters from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found that Eastern European countries have approved the sale of more than £840m in weapons in the past four years to Middle Eastern countries that are known to ship arms to Syria.

The arms includes assault rifles, such as AK-47s, mortar shells, rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons that the Guardian has reported were routed through a new arms pipeline from the Balkans to the Arabian Peninsula and countries bordering Syria.

Bodil Valero, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on arms, told the Guardian that at least some of the transfers probably breached EU, international and national laws on arms exports.

He told The Guardian: “The evidence points towards systematic diversion of weapons to armed groups accused of committing serious human rights violations. If this is the case, the transfers are illegal under… international law and should cease immediately.”

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