“As we forge a dynamic new vision for a truly Global Britain, this government is absolutely committed to the United Kingdom being an even stronger force for good in the world… the measures we are announcing and enacting today, hold to account the perpetrators of the worst human rights abuses.” These were the words of the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab only yesterday in a major statement that aimed to paint the UK as a defender of human rights and democracy around the world.
It is 24 hours later and the hypocrisy at the heart of Raab’s posturing has been exposed. In a written statement this morning, the secretary of state for international trade, Liz Truss announced that, following a review, the UK would be resuming arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in its war in Yemen.
The review had been announced last year following a Court of Appeal verdict that found the government had acted “irrationally and therefore unlawfully” in allowing the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and the rest of its coalition partners that have spent the last five years unleashing a brutal bombing campaign on Yemen. The judgment, which came as a result of a case brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade, was the first time UK arms exports had been challenged in this way.
The bombardment has been aided by the political and military support offered by arms trading governments like the US and the UK and arms companies like BAE Systems.
It is hard to put a total value on the arms sales. The government’s export data shows that £5.3 billion worth of arms licences have been approved since the war began. However, this does not include weapons which are sold under the opaque open licence system, which allows for an unlimited quantity of weapons to be sold, so the real total will be significantly higher. An analysis of BAE’s accounts since 2015 found that it has sold £15bn in arms and services to Saudi Arabia. The company has said it complies “with all relevant export control laws and regulations.”
Beyond balance sheets, the death toll has been terrible. Last year the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project finding that over 100,000 people have been killed as a result of the conflict and the resulting humanitarian crisis. Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni-based human rights monitoring group, warns that the country’s healthcare system has “almost collapsed.” The destruction has left the system operating at 50 per cent of its capacity at a time when 24 million people need aid.
In that time the Saudi-led coalition has been accused of bombing schools, hospitals and homes. It’s not just buildings that have been destroyed, with Saudi air strikes hitting events such as funerals. Riyadh denies breaching international law.
In today’s statement Liz Truss described atrocities of this kind as “isolated incidents” and concluded that “On that basis, I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.” What she did not say was how many isolated incidents it would take for the government to stop supplying the weaponry.
If this is the first test of this government’s new commitment to upholding human rights, then it is one that it has failed appallingly. It is a shameful and morally bankrupt decision by Liz Truss and her colleagues. Over the days ahead, we will be working with our lawyers and exploring all options available to challenge this decision.
Only yesterday the government was talking about the need to sanction human rights abusers and refusing to ‘look the other way’ when abuses are being inflicted. Today it has revealed how vacuous and hollow these words are, and has shown that it will do everything it can to continue selling arms to a nation involved in one of the most brutal conflicts in the world.