The Government does not make judgments over whether countries like Saudi Arabia have violated international humanitarian laws in specific cases before granting arms exports to them.
Ministers have admitted they do not reach any conclusion on whether there have been violations in particular cases, because they say it would “not be possible” in conflicts the UK is not involved in.
Ministers instead try to come to “an overall judgement” that arms sold to a country will not be used to violate international humanitarian laws (IHL), a government spokesman has told The Independent.
The revelation comes ahead of a landmark judicial review case this week in the High Court, which will determine the legality of the arms transfers to Saudi Arabia.
Campaigners have demanded to know how it is possible to reach an “overall judgement” without determining whether violations have occurred in individual instances and accused the Government of “burying its head in the sand”.
It follows the publication of a report from two committees of MPs which said it had been presented with evidence of “clear violations” of international humanitarian law in the war being waged in part by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, including an air strike on a wedding party which killed 47 civilians and injured 58 more.
There has been outrage that the Government is continuing to allow arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite many claims of violations of IHL in Yemen.
But when Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake called on the Government to publish the findings on which its assessment of alleged violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen is based, he was told that while some incidents were monitored and analysed, no conclusions on individual cases are reached.
Instead, information is used to “form an overall view on the approach and attitude of Saudi Arabia” to IHL.
Tobias Ellwood, minister for the Middle East and Africa, said in a written answer: “It is important to make clear that neither the [Ministry of Defence] nor the [Foreign Office] reaches a conclusion as to whether or not an IHL violation has taken place in relation to each and every incident of potential concern that comes to its attention.
“This would simply not be possible in conflicts to which the UK is not a party, as is the case in Yemen.”
The response comes despite a joint report by MPs on the House of Commons business and international development committees calling for sales of UK weapons which could be used in Saudi Arabia’s military action in Yemen to be halted until the completion of an independent inquiry into allegations, for which it had seen “clear evidence”.
Mr Brake told The Independent: “Yet again the Government is tying itself up in knots to defend their continued sale of arms to Saudi.
“Instead of fully assessing the significant evidence of horrific attacks by Saudi on civilians in Yemen, they are burying their heads in the sand and allowing British-made weapons to be complicit in these attacks.
“This is the dark side of a Tory-Brexit government who are desperate to pursue trade, no matter the human cost.”
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said the UK regime for granting licences should be reformed.
He said: “How can the Government reach an overall judgement without making judgements on specific allegations?
“How can they possibly form an overall picture without determining whether or not allegations are true? If arms export controls mean anything then all allegations of human rights breaches must be thoroughly investigated.”
It was confirmed last month that Britain exported 500 cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia in an arms deal dating back to when Margaret Thatcher was in power.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon revealed the official figures, which relate to exports signed off by the Government between 1986 to 1989, after it emerged that a “limited number” of the weapons sold to the autocracy are still in its stockpile.
The weapons are now banned after Britain signed a treaty in 2010, but Sir Michael has said he was satisfied the bombs had not been used to breach IHL.
Saudi Arabia in December admitted using the weapons in Yemen. It has now told the British government it will no longer use them, but has not confirmed it has destroyed them.
It is also investigating itself over alleged violations of international human rights law in Yemen.
On 7, 8 and 10 February, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam will make submissions to the High Court, in a legal challenge brought by CAAT, over the selling of arms by the UK to the Saudis.
James Lynch, head of Human Rights at Amnesty, said the government’s repeated refusal to halt arms transfers “beggars belief”, given the extensive and credible reporting showing the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s ongoing serious violations of international human rights.
A poll by CAAT has revealed that two-thirds of British people think selling arms to the Saudis is unacceptable.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The UK Government operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world.
“We do not make assessments in each and every alleged case of a breach of IHL, as we are not in a position to do so.
“However, the Ministry of Defence monitors alleged IHL violations using all available information, such as media and other reports, and this wider picture is used to form an overall judgement of the risk that any exported items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL.”