Boris Johnson privately pushed for Britain to keep selling bombs and other weapons to Saudi Arabia after the country’s air forces killed over 140 people attending a funeral in Yemen.
Correspondence between the Foreign Secretary and Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, shows Mr Johnson intervened after the bombing to tell his Cabinet colleague that he did not judge the attack as a reason to stop selling weapons.
The funeral bombing in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, hit the city’s Great Hall at the start of October last year. Minutes after the first air strike a second bomb hit, killing more people including those who had rushed to help.
“This is an extremely complex situation and I have recently received a further IHL update,” he wrote in a letter dated 8 November 2016.
“Based on the analysis and evidence in the update and noting the commitments to Saudi authorities have given us, particularly in response to the 8 October airstrike on the Sana’a Great Hall, I assess that the ‘clear risk’ threshold for refusal under Criterion 2(c) has not yet been reached.
“The issue is extremely finely balanced, but I judge at present that the Saudis appear committed both to improving processes and to taking action to address failures/individual incidents.”
The correspondence was revealed to the High Court in London as part of a legal challenge by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) against the continued sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The revelation comes days after the court heard that the Government’s top civil servant in charge of weapons export controls recommended that exports be stopped.
More than £3.3bn worth of arms has been licenced to Saudi Arabia since the bombing began in March 2015. Arms companies ramped up sales of bombs and other explosives by 100 times what they were before the conflict began in comparable three-month periods at the start of 2016.
Human rights groups say more than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen as the Saudi Arabian-led coalition intervenes in the country’s civil war.
Schools, hospitals and food factories have reportedly been hit while the United Nations has declared the situation a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
CAAT says the Government is unlawfully failing to suspend the sale of UK arms to Saudi Arabia, despite evidence that the Gulf state is guilty of “repeated and serious breaches” of international humanitarian law.
The Government says there is no “clear risk” that UK-licensed items might be used to commit a serious violation of humanitarian law. Licencing is the responsibility of Liam Fox’s Department for International Trade; it was previously the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills, which has now been abolished.
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.
A Government spokesperson said: “The UK is playing a leading role in work to find a political solution to the conflict in Yemen and to address the humanitarian crisis.
“We operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and keep our defence exports to Saudi Arabia under careful and continual review. Given the current legal proceedings we will not be commenting further outside of court at this stage.”