British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful because they did not properly consider whether the weapons would be used to commit “serious violations of international humanitarian law,” the UK Court of Appeal ruled Thursday.
The ruling will not halt British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which is deeply involved in the civil war in Yemen, but it does mean the British government “must reconsider the matter,” the court ruled.
It is a victory for anti-arms trade campaigners concerned about the cost to civilian lives caused by British bombs and fighter jets sold to the Saudis, including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which brought the case and hailed the ruling.
However, CAAT added Thursday: “It shouldn’t take four years of schools, hospitals, weddings, and funerals being bombed. It should not take tens of thousands of deaths and the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”
Export licenses for military goods to Saudi Arabia approved by the UK government since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015 are worth $5.9 billion, according to data analyzed by CAAT.
Shares in BAE Systems – a UK arms maker that has significant business with Saudi Arabia – were trading higher on Thursday.
“We continue to support the UK Government in providing equipment, support and training under government to government agreements between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia,” BAE Systems said in a statement after Thursday’s ruling, Reuters reported.
The Department for International Trade, which issues the relevant licenses to export arms to Saudi Arabia, said it would try to appeal the court ruling.
“This judgment is not about whether the decisions themselves were right or wrong, but whether the process in reaching those decisions was correct,” the department said in a statement. “We disagree with the judgment and will be seeking permission to appeal.”
UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn demanded the UK government accept the ruling and said, “UK advice, assistance and arms supplies to Saudi’s war in Yemen is a moral stain on our country.”
Saudi Arabia became the world’s largest arms importer in 2014 to 2018, with an increase of 192% over the previous four-year period (2009 to 2013), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank which monitors the global weapons industry.
Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir said at a news conference in London that the court decision was about procedures to do with licensing, “not any wrongdoing by us.”
“It had more to do with process than actual substance, there was no guilt found [of Saudi],” al-Jubeir added, calling it “an internal matter for the United Kingdom.”
“The existing licenses will continue, I think the British government will have to make the necessary changes to its procedures and I leave it up to them,” he said.
On the bigger picture of denying arms sales to Riyadh, he said “stopping weapons to Saudi Arabia or the coalition in Yemen is basically playing into the hands of the death to America crowd,” referring to Iran and its proxies.
The UK court decision comes two days after monitoring group Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) released a report estimating 91,600 people have been killed so far in Yemen since the start of 2015.
It also once again raises questions about the UK’s business relationship with Saudi Arabia, a day after a United Nations special rapporteur blamed the Kingdom for the “deliberate, premeditated execution” of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his personal assets abroad should be hit by “targeted sanctions,” UN investigator Agnes Callamard said in her much-anticipated report, “until and unless evidence is provided and corroborated that he carries no responsibilities for this execution.”
Callamard said there was “sufficient credible evidence” that MBS bears responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder, and he should be investigated for it.
On Thursday, al-Jubeir told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the report was “flawed,” and denied that the Saudi government should accept responsibility for Khashoggi’s death.
“This is a gruesome murder that took place without authorization, for which the people who perpetrated (it) are being punished now,” al-Jubeir said.