British arms sales to Saudi Arabia must be halted

Monday 29th May 2017




Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington

Imagine a country which suppresses freedom of speech, imprisons political protestors and executes religious leaders. Imagine a country which has provided support for extremist groups in neighbouring states and has become a place so volatile that extremism flourishes. And imagine a country which, according to reports, has indiscriminately bombed civilians and dropped cluster bombs on besieged cities.

What most would imagine would be a country which any moral government should be condemning, and searching desperately for a way to change the path that the UK has taken. Yet the British Government is turning a blind eye and, instead, when ministers look at this country, they see one of their best customers in the arms trade. We see that in the statements made on television, the evidence ministers have given to committees, the House of Commons and now even in the High Court.

Saudi Arabia has led a military coalition in Yemen in support of forces loyal to the former recognised government which is fighting against Houthi forces and militias loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (these forces are also often guilty of serious breaches of international humanitarian law). The airstrikes that Saudi Arabian forces have conducted have wreaked terror on many Yemeni civilians. In any conflict, civilian lives will be put at a greater risk than usual, which is why it is so important that military forces recognise international humanitarian law (IHL) and ensure, in all cases, that war crimes are not committed. That is paramount in any conflict to reduce the pain which war brings to a country. It is clear, however, that Saudi Arabia is ignoring the requirements of IHL.

According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 93 per cent of casualties caused by the use of air-launched explosive weapons in populated areas are reported to be civilian. The Saudi-led Coalition designated whole cities as military targets, leading to attacks on hospitals, schools and mosques. Furthermore, there is clear evidence of Saudi forces using cluster munitions, including munitions which were manufactured decades earlier in the UK. That information, combined with numerous reports of attacks on civilian refugee camps, humanitarian warehouses and wedding parties, present a clear picture of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks which amount to grave violations of IHL.

Yet since Saudi Arabia started military operations in Yemen, the British Government has authorised the sale of £2.8 billion of military equipment to Saudi Arabia. No export licence applications have been refused due to non-compliance with the relevant criteria concerning the respect of IHRL.

When you add that all together, the answer is clear: our country should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia. That is why I have repeatedly called on the Government to “suspend all military equipment transfers to Saudi Arabia and its partners”, unless “the UK Government have clear and sufficient proof that violations of international humanitarian law have not occurred.” However, the Government recites the same response repeatedly, despite the damning evidence against the Saudi Coalition. They believe licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK’s export licensing criteria. How the Government can be morally satisfied when the UK arms trade appears to be breaking the law is beyond logic? It seems that the Government are desperately hoping that by repeating the line again and again they can trick everyone, including themselves, into believing it.

There is overwhelming evidence and many damning judgements from credible organisations (which the Government often use to champion and validate their foreign policy in other areas) which condemn the Government to the wrong corner in this debate. It was clear a long time ago that arms exports to Saudi Arabia should have been halted as they were not in accordance with all criteria and treaties to which the UK is a signatory to. The Government have chosen, unquestioningly, to side with Saudi Arabia, rather than hold them to account on their human rights abuses in Yemen. Those have caused a humanitarian disaster and brought further bloodshed and poverty to civilians in an already stricken land.

When the truth comes out, and the Government finally admit their acquiescence to the perpetration of such grave violations, their international reputation will have been severely damaged. Tough action will need to be taken to cleanse the Government’s conscience. If we do not act, our Government’s standing in the world will be permanently affected.

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