Britain’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia may have been ruled ‘unlawful’ – but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop

As well as the question of what the Court of Appeal’s decision means for existing equipment, there is a little faith in a paradigm shift in attitudes given the two frontrunners for the Conservative leadership, both of whom have signed off on arms contracts in the past

Protest over UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia

It’s been a rough week for Saudi Arabia.

On Thursday, the Court of Appeal ruled that the British secretary of state broke the law by allowing arms sales to Saudi that might have been deployed by the Gulf-led coalition in the war in Yemen.

Just hours later, the US senate voted to block a multibillion-dollar weapons sale to the kingdom.

The day before that, United Nations investigators said there was “credible evidence” that powerful Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman was liable for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal al Khashoggi last October, which the kingdom vehemently denies.

Agnes Callamard released the step by step description of Mr Khashoggi’s final hours, which included the crown prince’s closest aides discussing how to dispose of the body by separating joints.

The fallout from this has been somewhat eclipsed by the escalation of regional tensions with Iran.

It has certainly turned up the heat on the close relationships the UK and US governments have enjoyed with their wealthy ally, the Gulf kingdom.

But for how long?

The legal action against the British government was brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which argued that the Saudi-led coalition likely violated international humanitarian law in its ongoing bombardment in Yemen, breaking EU arms-export licence criteria.

Since the Gulf bombing campaign began in 2015 against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, CAAT said the UK has licensed £4.7bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia (its largest purchaser), including aircraft, drones and bombs.

The armed conflict location and event data project, or ACLED, said last week that Saudi-led coalition is responsible for over two-thirds of the 11,700 civilians killed since the ruinous five-year war in Yemen erupted. The Saudi authorities and their Gulf allies vehemently deny the accusations that any of their airstrikes have been unlawful.

The court ruled that the UK government failed to assess the risk of misuse of those weapons properly.

But while CAAT campaigners celebrated the win, they warned that they “are not out of the woods yet”.

The court’s decision does not mean Britain must immediately halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

For now, the UK cannot grant any new export licences to sell arms to the kingdom but the existing licenses and contracts will continue, pending a decision by the secretary of state.

One of the judges, Sir Terence Etherton, said the ruling did not require the suspension of arms exports to Saudi Arabia but the government “must reconsider the matter” and estimate any future risks.

Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, has already said the government would challenge the Court of Appeal ruling. In the meantime, they are “carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision-making”.

Fox has to go away and come up with a new decision-making process and it is entirely possible, campaigners told me, that he could go away and conclude he has made correct decisions in the past.

Lawyers have also warned that it may be possible new arms “sales” could happen if the government can claim they are covered by existing licences rather than needing fresh ones.

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There are also questions raised about what that means for existing equipment sold, including aircraft. Will the UK still provide spare parts, training and personal support to the fighter jets already delivered?

Andrew Smith, of CAAT, said that there was a decades-long history that was not going to be “turned off overnight” and the remaining stockpiles of British could still be used.

There is a little faith in a paradigm shift in attitudes given the contenders for the role of prime minister are Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, both of whom have signed off on arms contracts in the past.

Smith argued that there needs to be a change in “political mindset”.

“The government has already said it will appeal the decision – this is not something they are going to take lying down. This is also something the arms company will fight every step of the way,” he said.

He added: “While very important, both politically and setting a legal precedent, it is not going to stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and it can’t undo the damage that has already been done.”

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