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UK bans new arms sales licences to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait

Announcement follows court ruling that government acted unlawfully by approving licences without considering whether weapons could be used to commit violations in Yemen
A girl walks near her house destroyed in an air strike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Faj Attan village in Sanaa, Yemen in December 2018 (Reuters)

The British government announced on Tuesday that it is banning all new arms sales licenses to the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition fighting in the Yemen war following its defeat in a lengthy court battle.

The prohibition covers Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait, and covers any weapons or military equipment that could be used in the war.

The government is seeking to appeal against the court order.

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“While we do this, we will not grant any new licences for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners (UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt) which might be used in the conflict in Yemen,” the department for international trade said in a statement on its website.

Existing licences are not currently covered by the ban, although the Court of Appeal in London last week ordered the government to look at the decision-making processes that allowed them to be granted.

The court ruled that the decision-making process over the granting of licences was unlawful – although not the decision itself – after hearing evidence that from early 2016 the government had started ignoring past coalition operations when deciding whether British arms may be used in breach of international humanitarian law.

Database amended

International trade officials in London had even amended the database they were using to keep track of coalition air strikes on Yemeni targets to remove a column on which potential violations were recorded.

That evidence had been produced before the court in secret – with only the judges and the government's lawyers present – but the court then placed the information into the public domain.

The court was hearing a judicial review of the lawfulness of the UK government’s arms sales policy, brought by a London-based NGO, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

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The case, which has lasted four years, centred on the question of whether the government could claim that there was no “clear risk” that UK arms might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

Lawyers for CAAT argued that there was a large body of evidence which demonstrates overwhelmingly that Saudi Arabia has committed repeated and serious breaches of international humanitarian law.

The government’s lawyers argued that the UK – as a consequence of its relationship with Riyadh and its superior technical abilities – was better able to assess the nature and consequences of aerial operations than NGOs, even those based in Yemen and visiting the scenes of air strikes.

The realisation that the UK government had stopped recording potential past violations seriously undermined its case.

"The question of whether there was an historic pattern of breaches of international humanitarian law on the part of the coalition, and Saudi Arabia in particular, was a question which required to be faced,” the court ruled.

"Even if it could not be answered with reasonable confidence in respect of every incident of concern... at least the attempt had to be made."

The UK government has licenced the sale of at least £4.7bn ($6bn) worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since a coalition led by the Gulf kingdom intervened in Yemen’s civil war in March 2015.

This includes £2.7bn ($3.4bn) worth of aircraft and £1.9bn ($2.4bn) worth of missiles, bombs and grenades.

Whist new licences are banned, an unknown number of bombs and missiles are exported under an opaque regime known as "open licencing”, and these shipments are likely to continue.

There are also an estimated 6,200 British contractors working at Saudi military bases, training pilots and maintaining aircraft, and more than 80 Royal Air Force personnel serving in the country, some within the command and control centre from where targets in Yemen are selected.

The Department of International Trade has set up a telephone information line that UK arms exports can call for further information about the ban.