UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia can continue, British court rules
Saudi Arabia, UK’s largest weapons client, bought £3bn of British arms in last two years
Campaigners hold a banner outside the High Court in London. Photograph: PA
Campaigners have lost a high-profile case calling for UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be stopped over humanitarian concerns as the high court ruled exports could continue.
Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) launched the high-profile judicial review of the government’s decision to continue granting weapons export licences to the country despite widespread concern over the civilian death toll of its campaign in Yemen.
Delivering an open judgment in the high court in London, Lord Justice Burnett, who heard the case with Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, said: “We have concluded that the material decisions of the secretary of state were lawful. We therefore dismiss the claim.”
The judgment was “necessarily long and rather dense”, he said. The court is also handing down a closed judgment, following a case in which half of the evidence was heard in secret after the government argued it contained sensitive information that could not be heard in public for national security reasons.
Saudi Arabia, UK’s largest weapons client, has bought more than £3 billion of British arms in the last two years.
UK and EU arms sales rules state that export licences cannot be granted if there is a “clear risk” that the equipment could be used to break international humanitarian law. CAAT argued that a significant body of public material showed there was such a risk.
But the court said in a press summary: “This open-source material is only part of the picture.” It said the Ministry of Defence had access to materials such as coalition fast-jet operational reporting data, high-res imagery, and UK Defence Intelligence reports and battle-damage assessments.
“The open and closed evidence demonstrated that the secretary of state was rationally entitled to conclude” the Saudi-led coalition was not deliberately targeting civilians, was properly investigating allegations of civilian casualties and was engaging with the British government about its concerns, the judges found.
Lord Justice Burnett said he would consider an application for an appeal, which CAAT and its solicitors Leigh Day said they would be lodging immediately.
CAAT spokesman Andrew Smith said: “This is a very disappointing verdict, and we are pursuing an appeal. If this verdict is upheld then it will be seen as a green light for government to continue arming and supporting brutal dictatorships and human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia that have shown a blatant disregard for international humanitarian law.
“Every day we are hearing new and horrifying stories about the humanitarian crisis that has been inflicted on the people of Yemen. Thousands have been killed while vital and lifesaving infrastructure has been destroyed.” The case had exposed the UK’s “toxic relationship” with Saudi Arabia, he added.
Rosa Curling of Leigh Day said: “The law is clear: where there is a clear risk UK arms might be used in the commission of serious violations of international law, arm sales cannot go ahead.
“Nothing in the open evidence, presented by the UK government to the court, suggests this risk does not exist in relation to arms to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, all the evidence we have seen from Yemen suggests the opposite: the risk is very real ... Our government should not be allowing itself to be complicit in the grave violations of law taking place by the Saudi coalition in Yemen.”
Licensing of arms exports is overseen by Liam Fox, the secretary of state for international trade, in consultation with the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development.
The government has argued that it operates one of the world’s most robust and thorough arms export regimes.
But lawyers for CAAT argued during hearings in the high court in London in February that the government was overlooking significant concerns, including those raised by the UN and its own licensing officials, over how Saudi Arabia was conducting its two-year campaign in Yemen.
Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Gulf nations in a campaign aiming to put down a Houthi-led insurgency in Yemen, the region’s poorest country.
Allegations of war crimes have been made against both sides, and last January a leaked UN report described “widespread and systematic” targeting of civilians in Saudi-led strikes, including the bombing of health facilities, schools, wedding parties and camps for internally displaced people.
The government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia have come under sustained criticism from sources including MPs on the business and international development parliamentary select committees.
Last year the two parliamentary committees recommended that weapons export licences to the country should be suspended until an independent international inquiry into allegations of breaches of international law was completed.
They found the government had failed to conduct credible investigations into how British weapons were being used.
The foreign affairs select committee, which refused to sign up to the committee recommendation, published its own report saying any decision on exports to Saudi Arabia should wait until the outcome of the CAAT case.
But it also called for an independent UN investigation into claims Saudi Arabia has broken international humanitarian law.