Britain’s new foreign secretary confirmed on Monday that the government will continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, despite allegations that they are being used to commit war crimes in the offense against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In a written statement to Parliament, Boris Johnson defended the decision, saying the UK operates “one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world”, and that there is not a clear risk that Saudi Arabia will use the weapons in violation of International Humanitarian Law.
The UK has licensed over £3.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015, and they are also providing military advice and personnel.
In response to Johnson’s statement, Josephine Hutton, Oxfam’s Middle East programme manager said: “There is ample evidence that the rules of war are being flouted by all sides in the conflict. Yemen has become a free-fire zone where hospitals, schools and homes are seen as fair game – regardless of who is inside them.
“The Government has a very simple decision to make; comply with its own law that requires it to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia in these circumstances, or remain in denial and continue to be party to a war that has led to the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians.”
Over 6,000 people have been killed in Yemen, and more than 3 million displaced. It is estimated that over half the country’s population are suffering from hunger and malnutrition.
Evidence suggests that there have been breaches of international law on all sides, but the UN has reported that the Saudi coalition has caused twice as many civilian casualties than all other forces put together. In August alone, they have been accused of bombing a food factory, a school, and a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, resulting in the deaths of over 30 people, including children.
The accusations have prompted international and domestic groups to repeatedly call for the UK to suspend its arms sales, including the European Parliament, the House of Commons’ International Development Committee, and a number of British political parties.
During the Conference of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty in August, Penny Lawrence, deputy chief executive of Oxfam GB said Britain has gone from being an enthusiastic backer of the Arms Trade Treaty, to one of the most significant violators.
“UK arms and military support are fueling a brutal war in Yemen, harming the very people the Arms Trade Treaty is designed to protect. Schools, hospitals and homes have been bombed in contravention of the rules of war.
“The UK government is in denial and disarray over its arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign in Yemen. It has misled its own parliament about its oversight of arms sales and its international credibility is in jeopardy as it commits to action on paper but does the opposite in reality. How can the Government insist that others abide by a treaty it helped set up if it flagrantly ignores it?”
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade echoed Lawrence’s comments on the UK’s international credibility, telling Armed Politics that sales of this kind impact the UK’s image internationally. “All of the polling done shows that people in the UK are opposed to arms sales to dictatorships, and those being repressed will think less of the UK as a result. Arms sales don’t just provide military support; they also send a message of political support. This was evident in Bahrain where the announcement that the UK would be opening a permanent naval base was met with protests outside the UK embassy.”
Smith added that the Saudi foreign policy potentially creates circumstances in which terrorism will thrive.
Recent government figures show that Britain has become the world’s second largest arms dealer, behind only the United States. Many of these weapons are being sold to countries in the Middle East, fueling the instability that is leading to the rise in terrorist groups.
A joint analysis conducted by the British newspaper Independent and Campaign Against the Arms Trade revealed the government has sold weapons to over half the countries on its own human rights watch list between 2010 and 2015. It has also sold arms to 39 of the 51 countries ranked “not free” on the Freedom House “Freedom in the world” report.
Steve Shaw is a UK-based freelance journalist. Twitter @shaws85