UK approved £283m of arms sales to Saudis after airstrike on Yemen funeral

Campaigners say Britain should have halted weapons exports after attack that caused international outrage

The British government approved £283m of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the six months after a Saudi airstrike on a funeral that killed scores of people and was criticised by the UN, figures reveal.

The airstrike, on 8 October 2016, hit a funeral hall in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, killing 140 people and injuring hundreds more, in one of the bloodiest attacks in the two-year Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.

British arms exports to Saudi Arabia have faced intense scrutiny from MPs and campaigners since the start of the conflict, but the country remains the UK’s most important weapons client.

Following the attack, the UK trade secretary, Liam Fox, delayed signing a set of export licences and his officials prepared for sales to Saudi Arabia to be suspended. However, documents obtained by the Guardian revealed that the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, advised him that the sales should continue, as he judged there was no clear risk that British weapons would be used for serious breaches of international humanitarian law.

In the following six months, the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles, according to data from Campaign Against Arms Trade.

This is a steep decline from the £1bn of bombs and missiles sent to the country in a single quarter in summer 2015. But campaigners and say the sales remain a matter of concern.

“The terrible funeral bombing should have been a time for reflection and for the UK to reconsider its uncritical political and military support for Saudi Arabia,” said Andrew Smith, spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade. “Instead, it has continued licensing fighter jets, bombs and other deadly weapons to the regime.

“If killing 140 people and turning a scene of mourning into a massacre isn’t enough to stop the arms sales, then what more would it take? Yemen has fallen into a terrible humanitarian catastrophe. How many more people need to die before the UK finally does the right thing and stops arming the regime?”

Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokeswoman, called for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be suspended. “There is now widespread evidence that Saudi Arabia has indiscriminately targeted civilians in Yemen,” she told the Guardian. “Yet the government has shamefully sold millions of pounds of UK arms to the Saudi regime as if nothing has happened.

“Liam Fox needs to take responsibility and end Britain’s complicity in this horrific conflict by suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately.”

The £283m figure does not include aircraft cannon equipment, targeting software, aircraft components, assault rifles and more that were exported under 24 open licences, in which the value of the equipment is not recorded.

Smith said open licences were “even less transparent” than the standard individual export licences, which apply to specific sets of restricted goods that are being exported.

This month, the high court ruled that the government had not breached its own weapons export laws by continuing to approve arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite mounting allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen. UK and EU arms sales rules state that export licences cannot be granted if there is a “clear risk” that the equipment could be used to break international humanitarian law.

Dismissing the case brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade, the judges ruled that the government had access to enough senior Saudi officials and data on the conflict to allow it to be confident there was no clear risk UK weapons might be used to commit atrocities.

“The UK government takes its defence export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world,” said a spokeswoman for the Department for International Trade. “We rigorously examine every application on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export-licensing criteria.

“We draw on all available information, including reports from NGOs and our overseas network, and our export licensing system allows us to respond quickly to changing facts on the ground. We have suspended or revoked licences when the level of risk changes and we constantly review local situations.”

The latest statistics also reveal £86m-worth of weapons exports to Turkey between the attempted coup in July 2016 and the end of March 2017, including £25m of body armour, helmets and armour plates, and £16m of armoured vehicles. This is a steep rise on the £45m authorised over the same period a year earlier.

The UK has been vocal in its support for Turkey’s president following the failed coup. In September, Johnson visited Turkey and said the UK government was “totally behind” President Erdoğan. The foreign secretary told a press conference he had discussed “the importance of a measured and proportionate response” to the coup, adding it was “overwhelmingly important that we support Turkish democracy”.

Erdoğan’s response response to the failed coup has been widely criticised as heavy-handed and authoritarian, and tens of thousands of people including judges, journalists, politicians and human rights activists have been jailed.

This month, the heads of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations signed an open letter calling the crackdown “massive and unrelenting” and an “ominous indicator” of Turkey’s future direction.


Alice Ross

The GuardianTramp

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