Date set for court challenge to ban British arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Campaign Against the Arms Trade has brought a legal challenge

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A date has been set for a High Court court challenge that could halt British arms sales to Saudi Arabia – amid mounting accusations the country is committing war crimes

Two judges will conduct a three-day judicial review of arms export licences issued by the British government for military hardware to the autocratic government.

The review will start on 7 February 2017, having been granted permission to proceed on 30 June this year.

Saudi Arabia is conducting a military operation in Yemen and has been accused by UN bodies, human rights groups, and other NGOs of committing war crimes. Reports on the ground say it has bombed civilian targets including funerals, international hospitals, schools, and food factories.

Yemen is facing a humanitarian emergency, with an estimated 20 million people in need of humanitarian aid and facing possible starvation, in part thanks to a blockade by Saudi forces.

The British Government has issued £3.3 billion in arms licences for export to the country since the bombing began, including, £1.1 billion for bombs, missiles and other explosive projectiles – so-called ML4 licences. 

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world other than the UK that has access to the deadly “Paveway IV” bomb manufactured by Glenrothes-based Raytheon UK.

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Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has defended selling arms to the autocracy (Reuters)

The Government’s own arms export conditions say that licences should not be issued if there is a possibility they could be used to commit war crimes.

Ministers have however refused to consider suspending arms exports to the country – and sensationally claimed that Saudi Arabia is best-placed to investigate its own alleged atrocities. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly cleared itself of any significant wrongdoing when it has investigated its own military.

“The Saudi government has approached this matter with great seriousness, and the seriousness it deserves,” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in Parliament on Wednesday.

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Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have hit civilians areas (Getty)

“But the House should be in no doubt that we in this country are monitoring the situation minutely and meticulously, and will continue to apply our established criteria for granting licences with fairness and rigour, and in full accordance with UK law.”

He added: “To those who say, as apparently they now do in this motion, that we should simply disregard those legal procedures, be in no doubt that we would be vacating a space that would rapidly be filled by other Western countries who would happily supply arms with nothing like the same compunctions or criteria or respect for humanitarian law.

“And more importantly, we would at a stroke eliminate this country's positive ability to exercise our moderating, diplomatic and political influence on a crisis where there are massive UK interests at stake.”

The House of Commons Arms Export Control Committee is split on whether or not the Government should immediately suspend arms sales to Saudi or wait for the outcome of the judicial review.

Labour, the SNP, Greens and Lib Dems have all called for arms sales to be suspended to the country.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade, which brought the legal challenge through its solicitors Leigh Day, said more people would likely be killed in Yemen while the challenge was coming to court.

“On Wednesday night MPs chose to put the UK's toxic relationship with Saudi Arabia and arms company profits ahead of human rights and upholding our own rules on arms sales,” he said.

“These arms sales aren't just immoral; we also believe them to be illegal,” he said. Our legal action will see arms exports to Saudi Arabia given the scrutiny they deserve. 

“But it shouldn't take legal action to stop the UK from arming one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. 

“Between now and next February, it is likely that thousands more people will die and Saudi will commit more war crimes.”

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