Boris Johnson pressed for UK to keep selling bombs to Saudi Arabia after air strike killed 140 at funeral

The Foreign Secretary wrote to the Trade Secretary saying he did not judge the attack as a reason to stop selling weapons

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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”.

Boris Johnson corresponded with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox (Getty)

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.

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.”