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UK on wrong side of history with arms sales to Saudi Arabia

A day after sanctioning 20 Saudi officials involved in the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul, the British government has announced that it will resume arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Last year, the U.K. Court of Appeal ruled that the licensing of arms sales to Riyadh was unlawful, after campaigners argued the government had failed to make a proper assessment of humanitarian risks. But after an official review, British International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said in a written statement to MPs on July 7 that procedures had been revised to comply with the court’s concerns and that the suspension of licenses for the export of arms to Saudi Arabia was at an end.

Truss said an analysis had been carried out of “all credible incidents of concern,” and that while some incidents had been assessed as “possible” violations of international humanitarian law, or IHL, the analysis had not revealed any “patterns, trends or systemic weaknesses.” She noted that any possible breaches were “isolated incidents” and that “Saudi Arabia has a genuine intent and the capacity to comply with IHL.” She added, “On that basis, I have assessed that 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.”

It is clear that while Britain is meant to be acting as a steadfast defender of human rights, it appears to be doing the opposite when it comes to the Gulf’s oil-rich monarchies. Its policy on selling arms to Saudi Arabia suggests that Britain is not only turning a blind eye to the Saudi-led coalition’s atrocities in Yemen, but also providing what seems to be a cover-up for crimes committed by the coalition in Yemen. That is because the Saudi air strikes on hospitals and other civilian sites for five years clearly represent a pattern of violations by Riyadh.

“The U.K. used to have a reputation as a country that respected international norms and laws. Its determination to sell arms to Saudi Arabia despite the breaches of war crimes it is inflicting on the long-suffering people of Yemen shames us ever more,” former U.K. Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, told me.

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have documented the use of weapons, including U.K.-made ones, in unlawful strikes in Yemen. Additionally, according to a report that was released last year by the U.S.-based University Network for Human Rights and the Yemeni monitoring group, Mwatana, American and British-made bombs may have killed or injured nearly 1,000 civilians, including women and children, in Yemen’s conflict.

Moreover, in February 2019, following a short inquiry, the House of Lords’ international relations committee concluded: “The government asserts that, in its licensing of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, it is narrowly on the right side of international humanitarian law. Although conclusive evidence is not yet available, we assess that it is narrowly on the wrong side: given the volume and type of arms being exported to the Saudi-led coalition, we believe they are highly likely to be the cause of significant civilian casualties in Yemen, risking the contravention of international humanitarian law.” Therefore, it could be argued that should Britain resume arms sales to Riyadh, it would be risking its name to be more complicit in the war as the U.K.-made weapons are highly likely going to be used again in violations by Saudi Arabia.

“Over more than five years, a wide variety of independent organizations and experts have produced evidence from Yemen of civilian harm caused by the Saudi-led coalition; Saudi attacks have been widespread and indiscriminate, not isolated,” Anna Stavrianakis, professor of international relations at the University of Sussex, told me. “A key part of Saudi strategy appears to be direct targeting of the civilian population and infrastructure, as well as economic strangulation. For the U.K. government to conclude that there is therefore no clear risk of the misuse of weapons is to operate outside of reality.”

Stavrianakis added, “The U.K. government has shown, once again, that it is unconditionally siding with the Saudi Arabian regime in a war that even the U.K. government admits has no military solution. The inevitable increase in weapons exports that will now result will prolong the war, exacerbate the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and push prospects for a meaningful peace agreement even further down the road.”

Since the start of the war, the U.K. has licensed more than £4.7 billion in arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it is understandable that having a strong economy is a priority for any government, especially in these uncertain times that the world is passing through. However, it is immoral to refuel an economy at the expense of innocent civilians’ lives, which is something that Western governments, including Britain’s, appear to be doing by their willingness to sell arms to Riyadh.

It is true that the British government has long sought to broker a political settlement to the Yemeni conflict. But by selling arms to the Saudis, it did break one of the main principles of an honest broker, which is staying neutral. If Britain wants to be on the right side of history, then it should stop exporting arms to Riyadh and focus its efforts solely on ending this war without taking side with any of the warring parties.   

Today, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis could further worsen amid the coronavirus outbreak. Last month, UNICEF said that millions of children in Yemen could be pushed towards starvation by the end of the year as the humanitarian crisis is compounded by a lack of funding on account of the world grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

Thus, amid the pandemic, when it comes to Yemen, countries such as Britain should be thinking about delivering aid to the country, where 80 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance or protection, rather than resuming arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which shares a large amount of responsibility for the tragedy that Yemenis live in today.

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