Anti-arms trade campaigners will seek to overturn a decision made by Liz Truss to resume UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, arguing she ignored a pattern of bombing civilians by the country’s air force in Yemen.
A judicial review brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) starts in the high court on Tuesday, the latest step in a long-running battle over the legality of a lucrative trade worth more than £23bn since the war in Yemen began.
Emily Apple, a spokesperson for CAAT, accused the British government of “caring more about profit than war crimes”, and its case is expected to set out a string of civilian deaths caused by airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition.
Britain is the second largest supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia after the US, having sold the royal Saudi air force Typhoon and Tornado jets, spare parts and munitions, most notably Paveway IV bombs, Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles.
The group’s lawyers will argue before a judge that Truss, the then trade minister, was wrong to have concluded in July 2020 that the UK could resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia for weapons that could be used in Yemen, because there had been only “isolated incidents” of breaches of humanitarian law.
Five months before Truss acted, on 15 February 2020, 34 people were killed, including 26 children, when airstrikes hit a civilian gathering at the site of a fighter jet crash in Al Hayjah, Al Maslub district. A further 19 were injured, 18 of whom were children.
Monitoring groups say aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition that has been embroiled in the war in Yemen since 2015 have repeatedly killed or wounded civilians in reckless bombing that in each case amounts to a war crime. British law does not allow arms exports if there is a “clear risk” war crimes may result from the weapons use.
However, the UK has repeatedly said the clear risk test has not been met – and that it takes its arms licensing responsibilities seriously. Earlier this month, a Department for International Trade (DIT) spokesperson said: “We consider all our export applications thoroughly against a strict risk assessment framework and keep all licences under careful and continual review as standard.”
The deadly airstrikes have continued until recently. Oxfam, which has intervened in the case, released a report this year concluding at least 87 civilians were killed by airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen using weapons supplied by the UK and US between January 2021 and February 2022.
The war in Yemen, in which several regional powers have become involved since it started in 2014, has been described as triggering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. A total of 8,983 civilians have been killed by all parties in the fighting, according to the Yemen Data Project.
Martin Butcher, a policy adviser at Oxfam, said the charity’s research had concluded that airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition were responsible for a large proportion of the attacks. “That’s why it’s essential that the legality of UK arms sales is examined and arms sales must be immediately stopped,” he added.
British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were previously ruled unlawful in June 2019 by the court of appeal, after a previous challenge by CAAT. The court concluded that British ministers had “made no attempt” to assess whether there was a systemic pattern of bombing civilians on the part of the Saudis.
Arms sales were paused for a year, until Truss’s announcement. They were restarted hastily, with £1.4bn of weapons recorded in UK export figures in summer 2020, and have continued despite the US announcing a partial ban on weapons exports to Riyadh.
Shortly after becoming president in February 2021, Joe Biden said the US would halt the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia because of the situation in Yemen, but has since permitted the sale of more than $4bn of defensive systems. Relations between the two countries remain cool.
Decisions on licensing UK arms sits with the trade secretary, but the minister takes advice from the foreign secretary of the day. Previous documents have shown that Boris Johnson recommended in August 2016 that the UK allow Saudi Arabia to buy British bomb parts days after an airstrike on a potato factory in Yemen killed 14 people.
CAAT said it should not have had to come to court again, given the previous court of appeal ruling. Apple accused Truss of “paying lip service” to reviewing the legality of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and by resuming the trade the former minister had been engaged in “nothing but a flimsy pretence to continue lining the pockets of arms dealers at the expense of people’s lives”.
The DTI said it would not comment on legal proceedings.