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UK arms campaigners win right to appeal hearing over weapons to Saudi ruling

The Court of Appeal ruling means campaigners can continue battle to block arms exports to Saudi Arabia
A Houthi rebel sits near a building destroyed by a Saudi air strike in Sanaa, Yemen (AFP)

LONDON - Campaigners fighting to block the sales of UK arms to Saudi Arabia have won the right to take their case to the Court of Appeal.

Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) launched a judicial review last year of the government’s decision to continue granting weapons-export licences to Saudi Arabia despite widespread concern over the civilian death toll of its three-year bombing campaign in Yemen.

CAAT lost its initial challenged at the High Court in July 2017, when it warned that the ruling was a “green light” for the UK government to sell arms to “brutal dictatorships and human rights abusers”.

But, Friday’s ruling in the Court of Appeal means that it can launch a legal bid to overturn the High Court judgement, which found the export of arms from the UK to Saudi Arabia lawful, despite global concern that the weapons could be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.

A farewell to arms sales?

Lord Justice Irwin and Lord Justice Flaux granted permission on Friday for CAAT to appeal last year’s ruling, in what campaigners hope is a step on the path to halting the sale of British weapons to Riyadh.

'There is a clear risk that UK arms might be used in serious violations of international law'

Rosa Curling of law firm Leigh Day

Andrew Smith, spokesperson for CAAT, said: “The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has killed thousands of people and created one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world.

“Despite this, the Saudi regime has been armed and supported every step of the way by successive UK governments. We believe that these arms sales are immoral, and are confident that the Court of Appeal will agree that they are unlawful.”

The United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the bloody civil war begin in March 2015, and more than 85,000 people have been displaced this year alone in what has become the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis”.

Saudi-led strikes are thought to have killed thousands of civilians, amid breaches of international law, including a strike on a funeral that killed at least 100 civilians in October 2016. 

More than 22 million people are in need of aid as the worst cholera epidemic of modern history has ravaged the country, however Saudi Arabia has resisted calls for an end to its three-year long bombing campaign.

Serious violations of international law

The judicial review, some of which has been held in secret amid national security concerns, is being brought by CAAT against Trade Secretary Liam Fox over his ongoing decision to allow the export of arms to Saudi Arabia, despite repeated warning from rights groups and international NGOs.

Government figures show that since the start of the bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015, the UK has licensed more than $6.2bn in arms, including aircraft, helicopters, drones, bombs and missiles.

Rosa Curling, of law firm Leigh Day, which is representing CAAT, said: “We are delighted the Court of Appeal judges have recognised that a full hearing into this case must take place.

“It is clear from the open evidence in this claim that there is a clear risk the arms sold from the UK might be used in serious violation of international law. Where our politicians have sadly failed to follows UK legislation and policy, our client hopes the court will ensure the rule of law is upheld.”

CAAT has also won the right to challenge the closed verdict, where judges had heard evidence from the government in secret. 

Friday’s ruling comes after a one-day appeal hearing last month during which lawyers for Leigh Day argued that the decision to grant the licences was in breach of the UK arms export policy, which clearly states the government must deny such licences if there is a “clear risk” arms “might” be used in “a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law”.

Disclosures in court

The court challenge over arms sales has led to a string of uncomfortable disclosures for the government, including the release of documents last year in which the export policy chief told the then business secretary, Sajid Javid, then in charge of licensing, “my gut tells me we should suspend [weapons exports to the country]”.

Javid was appointed to the senior cabinet role of home secretary last week, and has been tipped as a possible future Conservative leader.

But, documents revealed he agreed arms sales despite being warned by the senior civil servant that the exports should be suspended over human rights concerns.

The High Court court heard last year that he approved arms licences even though he admitted to cabinet colleagues there was “uncertainty and gaps in the knowledge available” of how they would be used by Saudi Arabia.

Arms sales to Saudi have been put under renewed focus over the last year, after Middle East Eye revealed in February that the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen is investigating less than 15 percent of more than 300 alleged violations of international humanitarian law carried out by its forces in the country

The Labour party has repeatedly called for a halt to arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the Yemen conflict.

Following the judgement on Friday, Fabian Hamilton, Labour’s shadow minister for the Middle East, told MEE: “The fact is that Saudi military forces have systematically targeted innocent civilians in Yemen, which has led to thousands of civilian deaths.

"The British government continues to export arms to Saudi Arabia - some of which have been used against civilians. It is an absolute disgrace that this continues with no regard for international law and, if the judgement is that the sale of arms to the Saudis is unlawful, the UK should suspend all arms export licenses immediately.”

A Royal Saudi Air Force Typhoon (Wiki)

The Court of Appeal ruling comes at a crucial time for UK-Saudi relations after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman visited London earlier this year and signed a string of defence and economic deals.

During the visit the UK moved closer to a deal to sell 48 Eurofighter jets to Riyadh in a deal worth several billion dollars in a major boost to Preston-based arms giant BAE Systems.

CAAT’s legal challenge will return to court in the “coming months”, said lawyers for the group on Friday and any court victory for campaigners will force the UK to suspend the Eurofighter deal and other arms exports of weapons intended for use in Yemen.

It would also likely trigger a wider scrutiny of the export of UK-made weapons to other countries suspected of breaching international humanitarian law.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP, a Labour member of the powerful select committee on arms control exports, told MEE on Friday: “I welcome the court’s decision to grant an appeal…  I hope that the courts will finally rule on the case of Saudi Arabia specifically, a country which is using British bombs, planes and personnel to target civilians in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, in clear violation of IHL and UK arms export law.”

A government spokesperson said: “We remain confident that the UK operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and will continue to defend the decisions being challenged.

“We keep our defence exports under careful review to ensure they meet the rigorous standards of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.”

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