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UK faces lawsuit over Saudi arms sales contributing to Yemen abuses

Campaign group takes British government to court, accusing its licensing of weapons deals of leading to international human rights law violations
Yemenis inspect the damage after a reported Saudi-led air strike targeting a prison in the Houthi stronghold of Saada in northern Yemen on 22 January 2022 (AFP)

The UK government is set to face legal action on Tuesday over its arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the ongoing war in Yemen.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) is taking the government to the High Court, arguing that UK arms have contributed to breaching international humanitarian law and one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

'This is a government that cares more about profit than war crimes and the deaths of civilians'

- Emily Apple, Campaign Against Arms Trade

According to Oxfam, the UK has licensed at least £7.9bn ($9.6bn) in arms to Saudi Arabia across 547 licences since 2015, including Tornado and Typhoon aircraft and bombs. 

CAAT says the true value of arms sales could be more than £23bn (around $28bn) when additional "open licensees" are taken into account. 

A previous court challenge by CAAT in 2019 forced the UK government to suspend arms sales, but after an internal review sales resumed in 2021 on the basis that the breaches of humanitarian law were “isolated incidents”. 

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“This is a government that cares more about profit than war crimes and the deaths of civilians,” said Emily Apple, media coordinator at CAAT. 

“Its argument that these are ‘isolated incidents’ is total nonsense and deeply offensive to all the Yemeni people who’ve had their lives destroyed by UK weapons.”  

The judicial review is expected to last until 2 February.

'Profit over war crimes'

Yemen descended into civil war in 2014, when the Houthi movement seized the capital, Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh and a coalition of regional allies, chiefly the United Arab Emirates, intervened in March 2015 to push the Houthis back.

The war and Saudi Arabia's economic siege of Houthi-controlled areas are thought to have contributed to more than 300,000 deaths over eight years, according to UN estimates.

At least 8,983 civilians were killed in air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, including attacks that targeted hospitals, weddings and funerals.

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Middle East Eye reported on Monday that the UK government refused to release information about weapons sales to Saudi Arabia during the Yemen war, citing the expense of culling through the documents. 

The international trade and foreign affairs ministries denied MEE’s freedom of information requests on the basis of an exemption when more than 24 hours of staff time - valued at £600 ($742) - would be required to retrieve them.

Mwatana for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni organisation that is part of the CAAT case, said it is optimistic the legal action will bring justice. 

"After a series of letters to the UK responsible bodies, and as the first hearing before the British judiciary, we are optimistic that finally civilians in Yemen could reach a kind of justice after a long period of suffering of war,” a spokesperson for Yemeni rights group said. 

Martin Butcher, peace and conflict advisor at Oxfam said: “While all parties to the conflict have repeatedly harmed civilians, we know that the air strikes are responsible for a large proportion of the attacks. 

"That's why it’s essential that the legality of UK arms sales is examined and arms sales must be immediately stopped.”

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