17 January 2018

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Arms sales to Saudi Arabia and victims in Yemen put London on trial

The High Court has started a review of arms sale to Saudi Arabia that allegedly led to civilian casualties in Yemen. A growing number of UK lawmakers are calling for a review of the contract. For 62 per cent of Britons, arms sales to the Saudis is "unacceptable".

London (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A judicial review brought by various NGOs and human rights activists began last week in the High Court in London against British arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Campaigners claim that British weapons have been used in conflict areas, particularly Yemen, resulting in the death of innocent people. Saud Arabia has led an Arab coalition in a disastrous military campaign against Shia Houthi rebels, with thousands of civilian deaths.

The United Kingdom is the second largest arms exporter in the world. This flourishing trade has however caused outrage and protests among activists and civil society groups.

Since the start of the review, information presented before the court has been relayed by the media showing deep divisions in the government over the issue.

In particular, there is an exchange of letters between British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who was in favour of the arms sale, and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who did not hide his "deep concern" over the bombings taking place in Yemen.

Secretary Fox cited for example an attack on a group of civilians at a funeral on 8 October, which killed at least 140 people.

In recent weeks, a growing number of MPs have publicly condemned the arms trade.

For Andrew Smith, spokesman for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), public opinion and the rising death toll are behind the growing opposition. 

According to the findings of a recent survey, 62 per cent of Britons think that selling arms to the Saudis, the UK’s top customer, is "unacceptable".

The survey shows that public opinion is shocked by rising casualties and arms sales to regimes that violate human rights like Saudi Arabia, Smith added.

Last year, the Foreign Minister said that arms sales to Saudi Arabia did not contribute to human rights violations according to a government study. However, The Independent newspaper found that the British government did not investigate human rights claims before selling weapons to the Saudis. The government’s investigation was just perfunctory, aimed at appeasing public opinion.

Still, the ongoing controversy will not put a stop to arms exports, experts say. Britain’s flourishing arms industry employs about 50,000 people.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is interested in preserving relations with a close Gulf ally at a time of great political uncertainty following Brexit.

Speaking about the UK’s special "relationship" with Saudi Arabia, Ms May said that the security of the Gulf “will be vital to both our security and prosperity”, especially in light of the Iranian danger to the region.

Yet, notes analyst Christopher Davidson, "American and British leaders make thundering declarations, mainly to discredit Barack Obama’s legacy (nuclear deal) with Iran and continue to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to continue to buy weapons. However, the latter cannot afford to do so after oil prices dropped after 2014.”

See also

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Obama’s support for the Arab Spring is seen as coming “too late”. His speech is scoffed in the Arab world and attacked by Israel’s Netanyahu. The economic side of his proposal finds few takers as it risks further impoverishing the countries of the region. The US leader also discourages the recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations.

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