CAMPAIGN AGAINST ARMS TRADE has been granted permission for its legal challenge against the UK government’s decision to renew arms sales for use in the war in Yemen to proceed to the High Court.

The Honourable Mr Justice Jay ordered on 20 April 2021 that the case was arguable, granting CAAT’s application for permission to apply for judicial review.

In June 2019, the Court of Appeal ruled that the government acted unlawfully when it licensed the sale of UK-made arms to Saudi-led forces for use in Yemen without making an assessment as to whether or not past incidents amounted to breaches of International Humanitarian Law. This followed a case brought by CAAT. The government was ordered not to approve any new licences and to retake the decisions on extant licences in a lawful manner.

In July 2020 the government announced that it was resuming arms sales. This followed a review by the Department of International Trade which concluded that any violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) committed by the Saudi coalition were ‘isolated incidents’, despite the fact that hundreds of attacks on residential areas, schools, hospitals, civilian gatherings, and agricultural land and facilities have been documented. The war has also created a humanitarian crisis, with the UN warning that Yemen faces the worst famine the world has seen in decades.

UK arms export criteria says that if there is a “clear risk” that a weapon “might” be used in a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) then an arms sale should not go ahead. UK-made fighter jets, bombs and missiles have played a central role in attacks by the Saudi-led coalition, which have destroyed civilian infrastructure across Yemen. Saudi-led forces have been accused of widespread and systematic violations of IHL.

Since announcing its conclusion and the decision to resume licensing, the government has provided very little information on how it reached the conclusions it did, including how it decided there was no “pattern” of violations. In the time since arms sales were renewed, a number of governments, including the Biden administration, have promised to curb arms sales to the Saudi regime.

In the months that followed the decision to renew sales, the UK has licensed a further £1.45 billion worth of arms licences to Saudi Arabia, taking the total value of arms licensed since the bombing began to £6.8 billion, including:

  • £2.7 billion worth of ML10 licences (Aircraft, helicopters, drones)
  • £3.9 billion worth of ML4 licences (Grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures

The real level of exports is a great deal higher, with most weapons licensed via the opaque and secretive Open Licence system. The UK’s biggest arms company, BAE Systems, has made £17.5 billion in revenue from services and sales to Saudi Arabia since 2015.

CAAT submitted its latest legal challenge in October, in response to the government’s resumption of new export licences. CAAT’s case argues that the government’s conclusions that there were only a “small number” of violations of IHL committed by coalition forces, and that these did not form a “pattern”, are irrational, flying in the face of the weight of evidence to the contrary. CAAT further argues that even “isolated incidents” of violations could still involve a clear risk of further violations.

The High Court will now consider whether the government’s decision to resume licensing arms sales which could be used in the war in Yemen was lawful, with a hearing likely to take place later this year.

CAAT is represented by human rights lawyers Leigh Day. Yemeni organisation Mwatana for Human Rights have been granted permission to intervene in the case. CAAT and Mwatana for Human Rights have been nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, a nomination intended to draw attention to the suffering of the Yemeni people.

Sarah Waldron of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “UK made weapons have been central to a bombardment that has destroyed schools, hospitals and homes and created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The UK government may claim that these are only ‘isolated incidents’ but nothing could be further from the truth.

“Attacks on civilian sites have been widespread and systematic, and have hugely increased the death toll. Despite its complicity in this crisis the UK government has done all it can to keep the arms sales flowing. The decision to renew arms sales was immoral, and we are confident that the High Court will conclude that it was also illegal.”

Waleed Sheikh of Leigh Day said: “We are pleased that the court has granted our client permission to bring this judicial review claim. This case raises important questions about the decision-making process that is required of the government where there are such serious potential ramifications in relation to arms export control. This is particularly important in the context of Yemen, where the actions of the Saudi led coalition have wreaked such devastation on the civilian population”

Bonyan Jamal, Accountability Officer at Mwatana said: “It’s been a very long seven years of war in Yemen, and it’s shameful the UK has kept selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, putting UK profits over Yemeni lives. We’re intervening in this case because Mwatana has been documenting Saudi and UAE violations in Yemen for years and, if the UK government won’t take a principled approach to weapons sales, we’re hoping the British legal system will.”

* Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade