Skip to content

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/