The High Court has ruled that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful, after seeing “closed material” in closed court.
The case had been brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) over concerns that supply of arms to Saudi Arabia contravened International Humanitarian law.
The judicial review was of the government’s decision to continue granting weapons export licences to Saudi Arabia, in light of Saudi use of UK-supplied arms in the Yemeni conflict. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Gulf nations in a campaign aiming to put down an insurgency led by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Sources including the UN and many NGOs in the region claim that Saudi air strikes in Yemen have caused thousands of civilian deaths in targeted bombings of health facilities, schools, wedding parties and camps for internally displaced people.
However the court determined that the Ministry of Defence’s evidence from fast-jet operational reporting data, high-resolution imagery and UK Defence Intelligence reports and battle damage assessment, a great deal of which was designated sensitive material and heard in closed court, constituted better quality information than that available to the CAAT from open sources.
The court also held that “the Coalition were not deliberately targeting civilians”.
“Saudi Arabia has sought positively to address concerns about International Humanitarian Law and set up a permanent investigatory body”, the court added.
Lord Justice Burnett and Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, sitting in London, said that “closed material”, which had not been made public for national security reasons, “provides valuable additional support for the conclusion that the decisions taken by the secretary of state not to suspend or cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia were rational”. The court is also handing down a closed judgment.
Saudi Arabia, the UK’s largest weapons client, has bought more than £3bn of British arms in the last two years.
The CAAT will be appealing the court’s decision.
“This is a very disappointing verdict, and we are pursuing an appeal. If this verdict is upheld then it will be seen as a green light for government to continue arming and supporting brutal dictatorships and human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia that have shown a blatant disregard for international humanitarian law”, said CAAT spokesman Andrew Smith.
“Every day we are hearing new and horrifying stories about the humanitarian crisis that has been inflicted on the people of Yemen. Thousands have been killed while vital and lifesaving infrastructure has been destroyed.” The case had exposed the UK’s “toxic relationship” with Saudi Arabia, he added.
“Nothing in the open evidence, presented by the UK government to the court, suggests this risk does not exist in relation to arms to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, all the evidence we have seen from Yemen suggests the opposite: the risk is very real […] Our government should not be allowing itself to be complicit in the grave violations of law taking place by the Saudi coalition in Yemen” said Rosa Curling, of Leigh Day, solicitors for CAAT.
The UK arms trade with Saudi Arabia has been heavily criticised by a number of MPs on the select committee on arms export controls. However a draft report released in September 2016 saw concerted efforts from other committee members to water down the committee’s findings and its recommendations to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The foreign affairs select committee has now called for an independent UN investigation into claims Saudi Arabia has broken international humanitarian law.