UK Resumes Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

In a move that has been widely criticized by government officials, NGOs, and human rights activists, the United Kingdom announced earlier this month that they will resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that the weapons in question have been used by the Saudis to commit war crimes in Yemen. The UK’s International Trade Secretary determined that there was no “pattern” of Saudi arms strikes that violated international humanitarian law (IHL), even though findings from the UK’s Ministry of Defense revealed that more than 500 Saudi air raids could have breached IHL.

Arms sales were initially halted last summer, when three judges ruled that the arms export licensing process was flawed because government officials had approved the arms exports without performing an assessment of the risk to civilians or the potential violations of IHL. Such an assessment has since been performed, enabling the arms sales to resume. Since 2015 when the war in Yemen first began, the UK has licensed the equivalent of over $6 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Air Force photo/Margo Wright

British involvement in the war in Yemen extends well beyond simply selling arms to the Saudis; they are deeply entangled in every step of the bombing process. When arms exports are licensed in the UK for sale to Saudi Arabia, they are manufactured in Great Britain by BAE Systems and Raytheon UK; then they are sent to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by some of the 6,300 British contractors who assist in training Saudi pilots on how to use the bombs. In addition, members of the Royal Air Force are also deployed to train Saudi targeteers, the military officers who plan and coordinate the bombings. British politicians have argued that these arms sales enable the British government to wield leverage over Saudi Arabia and push for peace, but in practice, officials are reticent to address human rights violations by the Saudis out of fear of endangering the commercial relationship. A former British government official revealed in an investigation by The Guardian that in 2015, right before the Saudis began their bombing campaign in Yemen, British officials were informed that they would face financial pressure from the Saudis if they were to waver in their military cooperation.

The human suffering brought on by the war is staggering. Since 2015, at least 7,700 civilians have been killed according to the United Nations, and groups who focus exclusively on monitoring these civilian casualties say the death toll is closer to 12,000. About 60% of these deaths are due to bombing raids by coalition forces, which are led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but also include Bahrain and Kuwait. Coalition forces have bombed targets such as hospitals, weddings, funerals, schools, camps for internally displaced persons, and a school bus full of children. They have also systematically targeted infrastructure, including water treatment plants, bridges, and ministries. The coalition forces have also faced criticism for the particularly cruel tactic known as “double-tap” attacks, in which two bombs are dropped minutes apart, with the second specifically targeting the emergency responders and civilians who arrive at the scene of the first bombing to search for survivors and provide medical treatment. The aforementioned report by The Guardian described one such attack in 2016, which targeted a funeral, killing 155 and wounding over 500; a survivor of the attack, Mohammed Busaibis informed a Yemeni human rights group, Mwatana, that he “learned his own mother had died when he saw her familiar scar on a disembodied leg.” Millions are also at risk of starvation due to a war-induced famine, in what has been termed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

The UK is not the only country implicated in the human rights violations–UN experts have said that the United States, UK, and France may all be complicit in war crimes committed by Saudi forces through their provision of logistical support and intelligence. Several other nations–Austria, Belgium, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland–have chosen to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia; but like the UK, the US actions seem to be trending in the opposite direction. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have become a point of intense contention between the Trump administration and Congress over the past few years. Earlier this year, it was reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was being investigated over his potentially illegal use of an emergency declaration to sell $8.1 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia, overriding the traditional Congressional review process. In recent weeks it was revealed that senior administration officials, including Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, were considering ending the “informal” portion of the current system of Congressional review for arms sales to foreign governments. Lawmakers have used the informal notification process to place holds on arms sales to the Gulf nations in the past, which is likely the motivating factor behind the Trump administration’s desire to eliminate it. The Center for International Policy, the parent organization of the Security Assistance Monitor, signed onto a letter this month asking Congress to put a provision in the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act to end the export of air-to-ground munitions to the Gulf nations.