Everybody makes mistakes. That being said, not many of us have found ourselves breaching a Court of Appeal ruling put in place to stop the sale of arms to one of the most authoritarian dictatorships in the world.
Nevertheless, that is the position that the secretary of state for International Trade, Liz Truss, claims to have found herself in this week. On Tuesday evening, Truss was forced to admit that her department had “inadvertently” illegally approved two licences for the sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia.
The transfers came only weeks after a landmark verdict from the Court of Appeal, which concluded that the government had acted “irrationally” and “unlawfully” by continuing to arm the ongoing Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen.
As a result of the verdict, which followed a case brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade, the government was ordered not to approve any new licences to Saudi for use in Yemen and to retake all the decisions on existing licences in a legally compliant manner.
So how did it come to this? How did Liz Truss and her department “accidentally” end up breaking a court ruling to stop sales of military equipment?
A review has been ordered by the Department of International Trade to find out why these breaches occurred, and, just as importantly, whether there are other such cases. However, regardless of its findings, this surely discredits the government’s tired old mantra that the UK supposedly has some of the most “rigorous” and “robust” arms export controls in the world.
Opposition politicians have called for Truss to resign, but this alone would not address the systematic failings that allowed the sales to happen. These breaches are the result of a longstanding and shameful policy of maximising arms sales regardless of the consequences.
For decades now the Saudi military has been by far the largest buyer of UK arms. This has been the case under Conservative governments, Labour governments and the coalition government. Irrespective of which party has been in office, successive prime ministers have enabled sales while ignoring the years of abuse that the dictatorship has inflicted on Saudi and Yemeni people.
Since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015 the UK has licensed £5.3bn worth of arms to the Saudi regime, including fighter jets, bombs and missiles. These weapons have played a central role in the brutal war, which has created the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.
The extent of the UK government’s support was on display last week when a Saudi military delegation was invited to London by Truss’s department for Defence & Security Equipment International 2019 (DSEI), the biggest arms fair in the world.
While at DSEI, Saudi representatives will have been welcomed by UK civil servants and lobbied for further sales by the world’s biggest arms companies. Nobody will have dared to utter a word about the abysmal state of human rights in Saudi Arabia or the human cost of its bombardment of Yemen.
At the heart of discussions will have been the prospect of further fighter jet sales. Since 2016, the government has been in negotiations with the Saudi Royal Family and the UK’s largest arms company, BAE Systems, to secure the sale of 48 Eurofighter jets.
The deal, which appears to have been put on hold following the court verdict and the international condemnation of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, is thought to be worth £10bn. With that kind of money on the table, government ministers have been prepared to act as cheerleaders for the arms industry.
The reality is that the UK government has always been far more concerned with arms company profits than it has with the rights and lives of Yemeni people, no matter how appalling the crisis has become. If the deaths of 60,000 people in Yemen have not been enough to bring about change then what will it take?
Regardless of how these recent breaches have happened, one thing we know for certain is that the government cannot be trusted to follow its own laws, or, seemingly, an order from the Court of Appeal. There can be no more excuses; these revelations must surely be followed by the immediate end of all UK arms exports to the Saudi regime and all support for its devastating war in Yemen.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT)
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