People search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sanaa Airport, Yemen, 26 March, 2015. Photo: Abo Haitham

How can the UK government justify arms sales that fuel the war in Yemen?

Conflict, Food security, Humanitarian, In the news, Protection

Laura Gyte describes why Oxfam intervened in a court case brought against the UK government over arms sales.

People search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sanaa Airport, Yemen, 26 March, 2015. Photo: Abo Haitham
People search for survivors under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sana’a Airport, Yemen, 26 March, 2015. Photo: Abo Haitham

UPDATE: on 20 June the Court of Appeal ruled that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are unlawful.

In April, the Court of Appeal heard a claim brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) on whether the UK government’s decision to continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia was lawful. Oxfam, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch (UK) were all granted permission to intervene.

This was Oxfam’s first intervention in a court case brought against the UK government. It was a carefully considered decision, and reflects how important we believe the case is, and the impact that a successful outcome will have.

The background to the case is the war in Yemen. Every eight hours, fighting in Yemen kills another civilian.  24 million people are now in need of aid, and 10 million of those are on the brink of famine. All warring parties, and those fuelling the conflict through arms transfers, are implicated in this totally man-made humanitarian crisis.

24 million people are now in need of aid, and 10 million of those are on the brink of famine.

Oxfam believes that the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia – totalling £4.6bn – are fuelling the war, and are being used in serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) by the Saudi-led coalition. In court, the UK government did not dispute that the volume of sales is so great that in any violation of IHL by the coalition, it is likely that arms supplied by the UK will have been used.

Breaches of IHL are occurring on all sides in the war. The Court of Appeal heard compelling evidence of a pattern of violations of IHL by the Saudi-led coalition, including attacks on humanitarian relief and medical facilities, and targeting of entire regions. Oxfam’s witness statement in the original High Court case had related these to our experiences of working in Yemen. Staff and the people we work with, have suffered coalition air strikes first hand.

In 2017, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen published a detailed investigation into 10 coalition air strikes. In eight incidents, the Panel found no evidence at all of a legitimate military target. In all 10 cases the Panel was ‘almost certain’ that there was a violation of IHL, and concluded that some of these may amount to war crimes.

The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen was ‘almost certain’ that there was a violation of International Humanitarian Law.

To take one example, the Court of Appeal heard that on 8 May 2015, Brigadier General Assiri issued a statement on the radio that the entire city of Sa’dah and the area of Maran were now military targets, and that air strikes would commence within hours. Both cities were devastated by coalition bombing shortly after, in direct violation of IHL.

The terrible gravity of the impact of these incidents on Yemeni people was obvious to everyone in court. It can be hard, faced with such facts, to remember that a court can only consider the legal questions. In this case, the key legal question hinged on assessing a clear risk that arms the UK government supplies to Saudi Arabia will be used in future serious violations.

If the UK government determines that there is such a clear risk, then under the law, it must stop arms sales. These laws flow from the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a treaty that the UK played a key role in securing. The case is vitally important to ensure the ATT has the impact that was intended. If the rules don’t prevent sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen, then what would they prevent?

The court can only review whether the assessment of ‘clear risk’ complied with minimum legal standards of process and rationality. The court cannot rule on whether decisions made by government are right, good, or acceptable in any other sense. But on any moral case, as the UK public agrees, arms sales to Saudi Arabia that are fuelling the humanitarian crisis in Yemen must stop. The UK government can make this political decision at any time.

US congress recently voted to stop military assistance to Saudi Arabia, and arms sales are suspended in Germany. The submissions that the UK government made in the court case laid bare their approach to this political decision.

It will be several months before the judges give their verdict on this case, but the people of Yemen can’t wait. We are asking the British public to call on the UK government to suspend arms transfers that are fuelling the conflict, and to push for an immediate nationwide ceasefire, to stop more people dying and help avert a famine.

Author
Laura Gyte

Laura Gyte

Laura advises Oxfam on legal strategies in campaigns. She was previously an environmental justice litigator at Friends of the Earth, and has worked as a legal adviser to governments and NGOs in the Global North and South.