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Saudi arms sales: UK accused of 'hiding behind exemptions' over files

Government departments say it is too costly to consider releasing details of discussions about arms exports policy in wake of 2016 bombing in Yemen
Yemeni rescue workers carry a victim on a stretcher amid the rubble of a funeral hall hit by Saudi-led coalition airplanes in Sanaa on 8 October 2016 (AFP)
Yemeni rescue workers carry a victim on a stretcher amid the rubble of a funeral hall hit by Saudi-led coalition airplanes in Sanaa on 8 October 2016 (AFP)

The UK government has been accused of “hiding behind exemptions” after refusing to release information about British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia at the height of its war in Yemen, citing the expense of culling through documents.

Campaigners argue that the information should be released because the public should know how government decisions about arms sales to the Gulf kingdom were made in the wake of the one of the deadliest Saudi-led coalition bombings.

'The UK government is hiding behind exemptions in order to avoid scrutiny of its deals that have contributed to thousands of civilian deaths'

- Emily Apple, CAAT

In July 2022, Middle East Eye filed two separate freedom of information requests to the Department for International Trade and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The requests seek correspondence between the departments and ministers about arms exports to Saudi Arabia between 1 and 15 October 2016, at a time when the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct was under scrutiny over an 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 the UN monitors found violated international humanitarian law. 

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After repeated delays, both departments have rejected MEE’s requests, citing a section of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which exempts the release of documents when more than 24 hours of staff time - valued at £600 ($742) - would be required to retrieve them.

“We believe that the information relevant to your request is located across a significant volume of physical folders and loose papers which would also contain information that is not relevant to your request,” the foreign office told MEE. 

“Consequently, I estimate that it will take more than three and a half working days to locate, retrieve and extract this information.”

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The department concluded it was “unable to offer any viable suggestions" on how MEE could narrow its request to allow it to comply with the cost limit.

The Department for International Trade originally rejected MEE’s request in September citing exemptions focused on protecting policy-making decisions and prejudicing relations between the UK and a foreign state and commercial interests.

In response to an internal review of its decision requested by MEE in October, the trade department said this month that its response was incorrect and, upon review, had identified a wider body of information that might fall within the scope of the request. 

However, it said it would take more than 24 hours to manually retrieve, read through and extract potentially relevant details from that widened pool of information. So, the department said, it should have originally told MEE that the information would not be released based on costs. 

The department suggested several ways MEE could narrow the search criteria in any further request, but cautioned it might still be rejected based on costs or other exemptions, including those mistakenly cited in September.

'The long game'

The UK government has faced criticism over its decision to continue selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns that British-made arms might be used in acts that violate international humanitarian law, including air strikes that kill civilians.

An Oxfam report released this month found that Saudi-led coalition air strikes using weapons supplied by the US and UK were responsible for killing at least 87 civilians in Yemen between January 2021 and the end of February 2022.

Martin Butcher, author of the report and Oxfam's policy advisor on peace, security and international humanitarian law, told MEE that the UK is failing to implement the Arms Trade Treaty.

The treaty, which he said the UK was instrumental in creating, requires signatories to ensure their arms are not supplied to a party in a conflict when there is an "overriding risk" they will be used in violation of international humanitarian law.

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"This FOI refusal shows how vital enhanced transparency is in holding the government to account for arms transfers of dubious legality under UK and international law," Butcher said.

Emily Apple, media coordinator for the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) which is challenging UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the high court this week, said the refusal to share the information is “yet another example of the UK government’s lack of transparency when it comes to arms sales”.

"The UK government is hiding behind exemptions in order to avoid scrutiny of its deals that have contributed to thousands of civilian deaths and one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world,” Apple said.

"It is obscene that the UK government is not only prioritising profit over people’s lives, but it is also refusing to be transparent over its decisions to do so.” 

Iain Overton, executive director of UK-based Action on Armed Violence, said the government regularly fails to comply by either the spirit or the rules of the Freedom of Information Act.

“Sometimes, when asked awkward questions, they play the long game. It took almost two years to get the Ministry of Defence to release data on how many children were killed following their troops' engagement in Afghanistan,” he said.

“One reason given that inhibits scrutiny is cost. Rarely is a breakdown of how the estimation of costs is [made] given. Even rarer still is the information eventually released.”

The foreign office did not respond to MEE's request for comment.

A Department for International Trade spokesperson said: “We take our export control responsibilities seriously and operate one of the most robust and transparent export control regimes in the world.

“There is clear guidance in the FOI Act setting out criteria for responses, which DIT has followed, and we have additionally provided detailed advice on how to narrow the scope of the request so that it may be considered if resubmitted by the requestor."

MEE has filed a new, narrowed FOI request with the department based on its suggestions. A response is expected by the end of February.

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