Britain exported 500 cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia in an arms deal dating back to when Margaret Thatcher was in power, the Defence Secretary has admitted.
Sir Michael Fallon revealed the official figures, which relate to exports signed off by the British government between 1986 to 1989, after it emerged that a “limited number” of the weapons had been sold to the autocracy and are still in its stockpile.
The weapons are now banned after Britain signed a treaty in 2010, but Sir Michael said last month he was satisfied the bombs had not been used to breach international law.
Saudi Arabia last month admitted using the British weapons in Yemen. It has now told the British Government that it will no longer use the weapons, but has not yet confirmed that it has destroyed them, Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood told the House of Commons on Tuesday.
The revelation comes a month ahead of a High Court challenge by Campaign Against the Arms Trade over the UK’s continuing sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia – despite allegations that they are being used to commit war crimes in Yemen.
Observers report that Saudi forces have hit schools, hospitals, wedding parties and food factories in the country during their intervention against Houthi rebels, which has been going on for more than a year. The UN’s aid agency has said the country is descending into a humanitarian catastrophe, with at least 19 million people in need of aid.
In a letter to Tory MP Philip Hollobone, Sir Michael confirmed: “The UK delivered 500 BL755 cluster munitions under a government-to-government agreement signed in 1986. The final delivery was made in 1989.”
Amnesty International has previously accused Prime Minister Theresa May of burying her head in the sand over the issue, given the "clear risk that UK weapons could be used to commit breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen".
Cluster bombs are particularly dangerous to civilians because they regularly leave behind unexploded “bomblets” that kill civilians long after a war is ended. They also by their nature are designed to have a wide area of effect.
Liberal Democrat shadow Foreign Secretary Tom Brake said: “The fact so many British-made cluster bombs were sold and are now being used in Yemen is a stain on the UK's reputation worldwide.
“Michael Fallon has an urgent responsibility to address this shameful legacy, by suspending arms sales to the Saudi regime and putting pressure on it stop using these horrific weapons.
“Most people are rightly sickened by the bombing of innocent civilians in Yemen. Our Government must end its complicity in this brutal conflict immediately.”
Between 7 and 9 February the High Court will hear the judicial review into whether British arms exports to Saudi Arabia breach international law, following an application by Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
Andrew Smith of CAAT said: “This legal action will set a very important precedent. For almost two years now, UK arms have been central to the devastation of Yemen and the humanitarian crisis it has caused.
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.
“The fact that UK aircraft and bombs are being used in the destruction is a terrible sign of how the UK government is putting arms company profits ahead of human lives.”
Since Saudi Arabia’s campaign started in March 2015 the UK has licensed around £3bn worth of arms including £2.2bn of so-called ML10 licence – aircraft and drones, £1.1bn ML4 licences, which include bombs and missiles, and £430,000 ML6 licences, which includes armoured vehicles and tanks.
Last month Theresa May rejected a call for the UK to stop the sales following a US decision to halt a shipment of guided bombs.Reuse content