News & events

Statement on the UK Government decision to resume licensing arms exports to Saudi Arabia

8 July 2020

The UK has doubled-down on its long-held position as one of the main suppliers of fighter aircraft and bombs for Saudi Arabia’s catastrophic war in Yemen, declaring at the end of a review into its arms export processes that Saudi violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) are not systematic enough to merit restraint. 
Announcing the completion of a review of UK arms export licensing ordered by the Court of Appeal, Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, claimed “there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL”.   

“Besides flying in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this statement misrepresents the Secretary of State's obligations under the law, as she is required to assess risks on a case-by-case basis, rather than by making overarching assessments and giving this type of blanket assurance,” said Roy Isbister, Team Leader in Saferworld's Arms Unit. 
Last June, the UK Court of Appeal declared the government’s decisions to approve arms exports to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen were irrational and unlawful on the grounds that the government made no attempt to assess whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of IHL in the past.   
In response, the government agreed to review its processes and that in the meantime it would stop issuing licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, or its Yemen-coalition partners, where there was any risk the arms might be used in Yemen (although it still allowed exports to continue under then-existing licences). 
In her statement, the Secretary of State acknowledges that Saudi Arabia may have committed violations of IHL in a number of different contexts (“It is noted … that the … possible violations of IHL occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons”). Yet the government has used the likelihood that problems have occurred in a wide range of contexts as grounds for concluding risks of further violations are low, rather than that the risks are real and widespread.  

The statement by Ms Truss suggests that because she can’t identify a pattern of violations or that she regards these as not systematic, there is no reason to refuse licences. But the UK export control system sets a much lower bar, whereby the government is obliged to deny a licence wherever “there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”. The absence of evidence of a ‘pattern’ is not equivalent to an absence of risk. 
The government will now process new licence applications for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. With a backlog that may take months to clear, it is likely there will be a significant uptick in exports. The government has also announced it will withdraw its appeal to the Supreme Court against the Court of Appeal’s judgment from last year, presumably because this will protect the review process from legal examination.  

Among all the devastating attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, health facilities have been subject to dozens of coalition aerial attacks. Struggling to deal with various health scourges – such as cholera, malnutrition, dengue fever and diphtheria – the health system was at the brink of collapse even before the outbreak of COVID-19 currently wrecking the country. 

“Following what appears on initial inspection to have been more whitewash than meaningful review, the UK government is now recommitting to supply the aircraft, bombs and missiles that have been part and parcel of this devastation,” said Roy Isbister.