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Can a new legal case stop UK arms sales to Yemen?

Written by Gemma Davies

Hero image description: Aftermath of an airstrike in Yemen, May 2015 Image credit:Ibrahem Qasim Image license:CC BY-SA 2.0

Today marks the sixth year since Saudi Arabia led a military intervention into Yemen. The UK remains one of Saudi Arabia’s largest arms suppliers – and UK arms continue to be used in Yemen – with persistent claims that it is disregarding regulatory laws.

The resulting conflict has devastated the country. The UN has said the humanitarian situation in Yemen has reached a ‘surreal and absurd’ dimension. It is reportedly headed for the biggest famine in modern history, with 16 million people at crisis levels of hunger. Meanwhile, the UK has slashed its aid budget by 60%, a move described by the UN Secretary-General as a ‘death sentence’. Over a quarter of a million people have been directly or indirectly killed since the war began.

Yemenis are not starving, they are ‘being starved’

The UN recently told the UN Security Council that Yemen’s ‘people are not starving, they are being starved’. Oxfam laid the blame partially with powerful states who ‘drive starvation with a plentiful supply of arms’. Laws regulating arms sales in the UK and Europe require that licences for arms transfers should not be granted if there is a clear risk they might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. UN experts recently concluded that rampant violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by conflict parties in Yemen are so widespread and egregious they may amount to war crimes.

Meanwhile, UK arms sales continue despite a 2019 Court of Appeal hearing which found that it was ‘irrational and therefore unlawful for the UK to have continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia without assessing whether violations of international humanitarian law had taken place in Yemen.

Arms sales were suspended for a year.

But the realpolitik of UK’s trade interests over human life prevailed, and a year later the UK resumed arms sales, concluding that abuses of international humanitarian law were isolated incidents.

The UK’s position mean it is increasingly isolated from its allies. A number of European countries – including Germany and, most recently, Italy – have halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other states involved in the Yemen conflict, while the US also recently announced an end to its support for selling arms.

With hundreds of thousands of lives unnecessarily lost, and millions more at risk, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is on the precipice of descending into a preventable famine. Decisive action is needed, including ongoing pressure on the UK and other states still supplying arms to stop fuelling the conflict. With a legal case against the UK government for its continued arms sales to Yemen looming, can this force a change in UK policy?

A collective lawsuit, led to the UK government suspending its arms sales to Yemen, can provide some lessons.

Can another legal case succeed where the previous one did not?

Legal action is a high cost, high risk and lengthy process requiring partnerships and a clear application of the law; however, conflicts too are lengthy. Influencing the behaviour of warring parties and their allies will always take time. As with any strategy that seeks to create change, using a package of tools, tactics and approaches is necessary to achieve impact, and legal action can be effective in a wider campaign to reduce civilian harm. A long-term approach is required, with sufficient resources, momentum and strong collaboration.

Legal action gains media and public attention. Regardless of the legal outcome, it can influence policy through media attention, public opinion and political scrutiny. Judgements, even when they don’t change the law, provide a foundation to change policy.

In other countries, a combination of collective legal action and public pressure have contributed to changes of arms sales policy. Other legal avenues are also being explored: Yemen civil society and organisations involved in the UK case have been instrumental in requesting the International Criminal Court (ICC) to consider whether government officials or senior personnel in arms companies bear individual criminal responsibility for aiding and abetting war crimes in Yemen through authorising arms exports. The UN Eminent Experts have called the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Yemen to the ICC.

After six years of relentless conflict, the UK finds itself an isolated accomplice to the suffering of Yemen’s people. The realpolitik of its position on Yemen has seen continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia, along with slashed budgets in response to a humanitarian catastrophe and looming famine. Can litigation expose and change this? The international community owe it to the people of Yemen to try.