On July 7, the United Kingdom announced that it intends to resume approving weapons sales by British companies to Saudi Arabia. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is choosing to move forward with these sales despite reams of evidence that once weapons are in the Saudi arsenal, there’s no way to be sure they won’t be used to commit war crimes in Yemen.
The government is moving forward despite eloquent pleas from Yemenis who say that continued sales greenlight continued abuses by the Saudi led coalition. It’s moving forward despite the UK’s own foreign secretary’s recent appeal on behalf of the people of Yemen for “international help to escape tragedy,” recognizing they are living through the world’s worst humanitarian crisis while trying to battle a global pandemic.
Moving forward at this moment ignores the realities on the ground in Yemen and also evidences a willingness to twist the facts and the law. In doing so, the UK is undermining the rules that govern the international order at a time when multilateralism is more important than ever.
After a landmark court ruling, the UK government was forced to pause sales until it could show that it had properly evaluated the risk that weapons sold to Saudi Arabia could be used in laws of war violations. Although UK suppliers have continued to fulfill existing contracts and the government “inadvertently” issued some new licenses, the court ruling undoubtedly had a chilling effect on transfers over the past year. That’s a good thing.
But now, the UK laughably claims it has “developed a revised methodology” that supports further sales based on the specious conclusion that the Saudis’ violations are “isolated” incidents.
Human Rights Watch made a 172-page submission to the UK last year that indicates the exact opposite. Despite their arsenal of top-of-the-line weapons with precision guidance, Saudi-led coalition aircraft keep hitting Yemeni civilians while they’re shopping for groceries, celebrating weddings, riding in school buses, mourning their dead at funerals, and seeking treatment for cholera.
Recently, the UN confirmed that the coalition hit four schools and hospitals in 2019. The International Rescue Committee estimates that more than half of the bombs dropped by the Saudi-led coalition in May of this year hit civilians or civilian infrastructure. These attacks have almost always been followed by self-investigations that excuse away the crimes.
Neither the law nor the facts support a conclusion that the problems with Saudi Arabia’s conduct are “isolated.”
Human Rights Watch has been campaigning to halt all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia since 2016. The UN has warned that those who continue to supply the coalition with weapons after seeing its abysmal track record risk complicity themselves. To be sure, this is not a problem that will be resolved by cutting off sales from the UK alone.
Saudi Arabia leads the world in arms imports and is responsible for 12 percent of global purchases since 2015. While the UK had paused licensing, French companies transferred $1.6 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia in 2019. Although the U.S. Congress has twice voted to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia, President Trump vetoed those bills allowing arms sales to proceed.
Last year, Trump pressed forward with a massive $8 billion sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE. The US is now considering an additional $478 million transfer of precision guided munitions to the Saudis. Once again, some members of Congress are objecting, but the Trump administration appears poised to move forward anyway.
While Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland all announced that they will stop new weapons exports to the Saudis, they have continued to supply arms, spare parts, and components to the Saudis under existing contracts. In fact, in 2019, Canadian military exports to Saudi Arabia hit an all-time high despite their moratorium.
The Trump administration in particular has made naked economic and geopolitical calculations the basis of its foreign policy. Its continued arms exports to “allies” despite a track record of human rights abuses is not unique to Saudi Arabia. But it’s particularly chilling that Trump was not shy about making an economic argument for sales in the face of the Saudi killing and dismemberment of US resident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The timing of the UK move, one day after it launched sanctions on 20 individual Saudis for their role in Khashoggi’s murder, underscores the incoherence of this approach. Governments like the UK shouldn’t need their courts to tie their hands — they should simply stop their sales to the Saudis. Instead of engaging in legal gymnastics to justify weapons sales, they should take a stance that definitively ends their role in fueling war crimes abroad.
By propagating the fiction that years of repeated Saudi violations of the laws of war are “isolated” incidents, the UK is either denying the facts on the ground or undermining mainstream understanding of the laws governing war. Most likely, it’s doing both.