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Saudi arms sales: UK government accused of 'delay tactics' over files

Department of International Trade tells MEE it needs more time to decide if release of documents is in public interest
Yemeni medics and rescue workers at the funeral hall in Sanaa after Saudi-led coalition airplanes bombings on 8 October 2016 (AFP)
Yemeni medics and rescue workers at the funeral hall in Sanaa after Saudi-led coalition airplane bombings on 8 October 2016 (AFP)

The UK Department of International Trade (DIT) has been accused of using "delaying tactics" after twice telling Middle East Eye it needs more time to decide whether releasing information about British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia is in the public interest.

Campaigners argue that the information should be released because members of the public should know how government decisions to sell arms to the Gulf kingdom at the height of its war in Yemen were made.

'The UK continued to approve arms export licences to Saudi Arabia in the wake of some of the most horrific Saudi coalition attacks on Yemeni civilians'

- Sam Perlo-Freeman, CAAT

Middle East Eye filed a freedom of information request in July seeking correspondence between the department and ministers about arms exports to Saudi Arabia between 1 and 15 October 2016, at a time when the Saudi-led coalition's conduct of the war was under scrutiny over a deadly air strike on a crowded funeral hall in Sanaa.

More than 140 people died and over 500 were injured in the bombing on 8 October 2016, an attack that UN monitors found had violated international humanitarian law.

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The department's Information Rights Unit has confirmed that it holds material that fits MEE's request, but said this week that it needed 30 days to decide whether releasing the information was in the public's interest.

This is the second time the unit has extended its deadline and comes as OpenDemocracy revealed that DIT was "the second most prolific" government department to use the "public interest loophole" in 2021.

Sam Perlo-Freeman, research coordinator with the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade which has challenged UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the high court, said the department appears to be using "classic delaying tactics".

"The UK continued to approve arms export licences to Saudi Arabia in the wake of some of the most horrific Saudi coalition attacks on Yemeni civilians," Perlo-Freeman said.

"It is important for the public to know - what concerns, if any, were raised by civil servants about these licences? How did ministers, including [then-Foreign Secretary] Boris Johnson, respond to these concerns? Did these atrocities make any difference to their thinking?" 

A Department of International Trade spokesperson told MEE: "We are fully committed to our transparency obligations and responded to over 500 FOI [freedom of information] requests received last year.

"Whilst we endeavour to respond to FOI requests as quickly as possible, in complex cases the consideration of the public interest can take longer."

Concerns over culpability

Nearly 24,000 people, including combatants and almost 9,000 civilians, have been killed by the air campaign alone since the Yemen war began, according to an estimate made by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project on 12 August.

After the October 2016 funeral bombing, the coalition initially denied that it was responsible but admitted a week later that it had been supplied with "incorrect information".

'There is a public interest in people knowing how decisions are made in our name'

- Anna Stavrianakis, University of Sussex

Within 48 hours of the attack, the US launched a review into its support for the Saudi-led coalition, saying its security cooperation with the kingdom was not a "blank cheque".

The UK, however, said it would continue to support the campaign, and little light has been shed publicly on the behind-the-scenes decision-making process that led to that call.

Previous FOI requests have turned up details about British policymaking following other major attacks, including then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's decision to allow Saudi Arabia to buy British bombs expected to be used in Yemen days after a Saudi-led coalition strike on a potato factory.

Anna Stavrianakis, a professor in international relations at the University of Sussex, was the requester behind that FOI and others. She spent nearly two years trying to obtain information on UK arms sales assessment policies from the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office through these requests.

She told MEE the information that DIT says it has in its possession is important to obtain in order to hold the UK accountable for its potential complicity in war crimes in Yemen.

There is abundant evidence in the public domain that the Saudi-led coalition has violated international law, some of which may constitute war crimes, she said.

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Meanwhile, UN experts have said that states which supply arms may be legally liable for those crimes, something that has concerned the US State Department from early on in the war.

"So it matters that we find out who is making decisions about UK arms exports, and what evidence and reasoning they are using," she said.

The request is also important to ensure democratic decision-making, she said. The UK government has "routinely claimed to have a transparent process", including publishing quarterly licensing data.

"It uses this as a means not to say anything further when controversies arise or questions are asked," she added.

"This means each individual decision can be treated as discrete, rather than part of a pattern. There is a public interest in people knowing how decisions are made in our name."

MEE requested an internal review on Wednesday following DIT's latest deadline extension.

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