Government rejects MPs' call to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia over alleged war crimes

Dr Liam Fox, Boris Johnson, Sir Michael Fallon, and Priti Patel issued a joint rejection

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The Government has rejected calls by two parliamentary committees for it to stop the sale of British bombs to Saudi Arabia’s armed forces in Yemen.

Saudi forces have been widely accused of committing war crimes during the campaign in the country, where reports on the ground suggest they have blown up international hospitals, funerals, schools, and weddings.

Despite the reported incidents and the worsening humanitarian situation in the country since the bombardment began, the UK has signed off £3.3 billion in arms sales to the country since the start of the offensive.

The country has been overtaken by famine with 370,000 children suffering from severe malnutrition and 1.5 million are going hungry overall, according to Unicef figures released in October. Saudi led-coalition air strikes are reported to have hit food factories processing products including potatoes and sugar.

Two committees of MPs, the International Development and Business Committee, which sit on a parliamentary ‘super committee’ called the Committee on Arms Export Control (CAEC), released a joint report calling for the suspension of arms sales until a UN investigation had been conducted into the alleged atrocities.

A third constituent committee of CAEC, the Foreign Affairs Committee, did not endorse the report, and said it would be better for the British courts to decide the legality of the sales – with a legal challenge launched by Campaign Against the Arms Trade set to be heard in the coming months.

The Government however rejected the call for the suspension of sales.

“We disagree with this recommendation. The Government is confident in its robust case-by-case assessment and is satisfied that extant licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK’s export licensing criteria,” the Government said in an official response.

“We continue to assess export licence applications for Saudi Arabia on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export licensingCriteria, taking account of all relevant factors at the time of the application. 

“The key test for our continued arms exports is whether there is a clear risk that those exports might be used in a commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). 

“A licence will not be issued for any country, including Saudi Arabia, if to do so would be inconsistent with any provision of the mandatory Criteria, including where we assess there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL.”

The response was issued jointly Dr Liam Fox, Boris Johnson, Sir Michael Fallon, and Priti Patel.

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A man looks at cows killed by a Saudi-led air strike at a dairy farm in Bajil in Yemen's western province of Houdieda (Reuters)

The Government has repeatedly said that Saudi Arabia is best placed to investigate its own alleged war crimes. The autocracy has absolved itself of any wrongdoing.

The committees had recommended that “the UK suspend licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, capable of being used in Yemen, pending the results of an independent, United Nations-led inquiry into reports of violations of IHL, and issue no further licences. 

“In addition, the UK Government should investigate whether any licences so far issued have led to the transfer of weapons which have been used in breach of IHL”.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade told The Independent: "The government is in denial about the devastating impact of the Saudi-led bombardment and its own complicity in it. This is a very weak response and makes clear that arms company profits are still being prioritised over the human rights and lives of Yemeni people.

"The evidence from the UN and others has been overwhelming, yet the government has refused to act.  Johnson, May and their colleagues could stop the arms sales right now, but instead they are offering uncritical military and political support while helping arms companies like BAE to sell even more weapons."

Saudi Arabia is intervening in Yemen in the side of the internationally-recognised Government, which no longer controls the country’s capital. It is ostensibly attacking Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, though large numbers of civilians casualties have been reported.

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