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Sorry Jeremy Hunt, it’s not that easy to excuse selling arms to Saudi Arabia

Despite its strenuous claims not to be party to the war in Yemen, the UK is now materially, diplomatically and symbolically involved

Anna Stavrianakis
Tuesday 02 April 2019 14:16 BST
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Video shows damaged buildings and homes in Yemen village hit by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes

After 15 years of researching UK arms export policy, it’s rare that I am surprised by the UK government’s capacity for sophistry and self-aggrandisement. Yet Jeremy Hunt’s recent claim that the consequences of the UK stopping selling arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen would be “morally bankrupt” left me temporarily speechless.

According to the foreign secretary, it’s crucial that the UK maintain arms sales to one of the parties involved in the conflict as a result of “Britain’s history and our values”; if we did not, we would simply “leave the parties to fight it out, while denouncing them impotently from the sidelines.”

This ongoing British preoccupation with our own esteem and anxiety around potency is a reminder of the "perils of mixing masculinity and missiles".

This week's Channel 4 Dispatches programme provided a sobering insight (in spite of its all-male line up of talk heads) into how UK support for Saudi Arabia makes the war in Yemen possible and has directlycreated the world’s worst current humanitarian disaster.

Making public the central role of expat BAE Systems technicians in facilitating Saudi bombing missions, and the unwillingness or inability of the UK Ministry of Defence to restrain Saudi targeting practices, the programme may help chip away at some of the government’s self-serving rationales for its ongoing relationships in that region.

Two clear issues have now emerged. The first is that targeting the civilian population appears to be a core component of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy in Yemen, rather than an accidental side-effect, though the Saudi state denies this. As the Yemen Safe Passage Group, which includes former ambassadors, diplomats and military officers with experience of working in Yemen, told Jeremy Hunt late last year, economic blockades and the military targeting of civilians are illegal under international law – and yet central to Saudi strategy. These experts are clear that the UK should suspend arms exports until a sustainable peace has been assured.

Second, much noise has been made about growing levels of UK humanitarian aid and our involvement in the push towards a peace process in an attempt to deflect criticism of UK arms export policy. Yet this effort to tally the balance sheet doesn’t work: no amount of humanitarian aid can compensate for a strategy that relies on harming the civilian population physically, economically and psychologically.

Despite its strenuous claims not to be party to the war, the nature of its interactions mean that the UK necessarily is materially, diplomatically and symbolically involved. When a former defence attaché to Riyadh goes on Radio 4 to declare the UK complicit in the war, and urging a halt to arms sales - unilaterally if necessary - the government should know it’s in trouble. Instead, it appears to be doubling down on its dubious bet.

Next week a campaign group is taking the government to court, challenging the legality of its arms export policy. Campaign Against Arms Trade initiated a judicial review two years ago, arguing that weapons sales to Saudi Arabia break the UK’s own legal commitment not to export weapons where there’s a clear risk they might be used in serious violations of international humanitarian law.

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Back then, the High Court found in favour of the government based on a flexible interpretation of risk in a process marked by a reliance on secret information and significant deference by the Court to the executive. Nonetheless, the Court of Appeal agreed with CAAT that there were grounds for them to challenge this finding, and the case returns to court next week.

With two more years of evidence of civilian targets, significant moves by some other EU member states to restrict their exports to Saudi Arabia, and Congressional opposition growing in the US, this could prove a pivotal moment in the search for accountability in the war in Yemen and for UK arms export policy.

Anna Stavrianakis is a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex

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