Government suspends export licenses for weapons sales to Saudi Arabia following court ruling

The government has stopped approving the sale of weapons which could be used as part of the war in Yemen. This followed a ruling from the Court of Appeal in favour of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CATT), who have been running a legal campaign against the government for its alleged involvement in the Yemen conflict. Saudi Arabia have been conducting airstrikes in Yemen in support of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels and other opponents since 2015. Since 2015 the UK has licensed nearly £5bn of arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

The High Court had previously ruled in the government’s favour, but the Court of Appeal was presented with fresh evidence from the Yemen conflict. From this they concluded that it was ‘irrational and therefore unlawful’ for the international trade secretary to have licensed weapons, having not made any ‘concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict’ and having ‘made no attempt to do so’.

However, the judges did find that the UK had ‘engaged closely’ with Saudi Arabia to minimise civilian casualties in the conflict, and it was asserted that the ruling did not require the suspension of exports to Saudi Arabia, only that the government ‘must reconsider the matter’ before issuing further licenses.

The Department for International Trade promotes the UK’s military exports, with the Export Control Joint Unit issuing export licenses. The government has, while the case is ongoing and ahead of further investigation into the conflict, suspended new export licences for exports to Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Yemen conflict.

Government appeal forthcoming

The government will be looking to appeal the ruling, which could take the case to the Supreme Court. Dr Liam Fox MP, the Secretary of State for the Department for International Trade, defended the government’s ‘rigorous and robust multi-layered process’ as being in line with UK and EU criteria. He said:

“We are carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision-making. While we do this, we will not grant any new licences for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which might be used in the conflict in Yemen.”

Dr Fox added the judgment did “not undermine the UK’s overall framework for export controls” and that existing licences would not be suspended. He also argued that Saudi Arabia is “a valuable partner in our shared combat against global terrorism and has helped keep numerous UK citizens safe”.

Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, said the ruling was a “damning indictment of the government’s handling of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia”. He told the Commons:

“The [suspension of licences] is not enough. We believe there should be an independent investigation into the Yemen conflict and it is shameful that the government should seek to appeal today’s judgment.”

Mr Gardiner warned that open weapons licences could be used to “bypass” the freeze, but Mr Fox denied that this would happen.

Further reading

The Independent: ‘Government freezes new arms licences for Saudi Arabia after court rules them unlawful amid war crime allegations’ – 20/06/19

Further updates relating to Export Controls and Licenses: http://www.exportcontrolprofession.co.uk/news/

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