Britain is to resume the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the Yemeni conflict just over a year after the court of appeal ruled them unlawful because ministers had not properly assessed the risk to civilian casualties.
In a written statement, the trade secretary, Liz Truss, said sales would restart after an official review concluded there had been only “isolated incidents” of airstrikes in Yemen that breached humanitarian law.
Truss said the undertaking given by the government after the court defeat last June “falls away”. The government had undertaken not to grant any new licences to export arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia for possible use in Yemen.
As a result, Truss said, “the government will now begin the process of clearing the backlog of licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that has built up since 20 June last year”.
Arms trade campaigners said the decision was “disgraceful and morally bankrupt” and they were considering a legal challenge.
Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: “The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the government itself admits that UK-made arms have played a central role on the bombing. We will be exploring all options available to challenge it.”
Britain is a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia. The leading arms maker, BAE Systems, sold £15bn-worth of arms to the Gulf kingdom over the last five years, principally supplying and maintaining Tornado and Typhoon aircraft used in bombing missions.
Thousands of civilians have been killed since the civil war in Yemen began in March 2015 with indiscriminate bombing by a Saudi-led coalition that is supplied by western arms makers. The kingdom’s air force is accused of being responsible for many of the 12,600 deaths in targeted attacks.
Saudi involvement in Yemen’s civil war has dropped dramatically in recent months, as Riyadh seeks to withdraw from a war that has earned it international criticism. But the country remains engaged in the conflict along with its coalition partners, despite the coronavirus pandemic, at a reduced level.
The UK review sought to examine historical examples of airstrikes from Saudi Arabia using British-licensed equipment that may have breached humanitarian law, and in particular whether there were trends in incidents where there were civilian casualties.
“This analysis has not revealed any such patterns, trends or systemic weaknesses,” Truss told MPs in the statement. “The conclusion is that these are isolated incidents,” which the minister said justified restarting exports.
A succession of leading ministers, including Boris Johnson when he was foreign secretary, have been criticised for signing off export licences to Saudi Arabia for hardware that could be used in Yemen at a time when civilians were being killed in bombing.
Because the court of appeal held that the government’s review processes of Saudi airstrikes were insufficient, it was always theoretically possible that ministers would seek to resume sales if they could claim the practice had been tightened up.
As a result, Truss said the Department for International Trade would no longer appeal to the supreme court against last year’s ruling “in light of the revised methodology which I have just described”.
The decision came a day after the UK announced sanctions against human rights abusers, including 20 Saudi nationals involved with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – one of them a close aide to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.