How to Block Arms Shipments to Human Rights Abusers, with Andrew Smith of CAAT

Published June 27th, 2019 - 09:48 GMT
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Protesters against Saudi's intervention in Yemen (AFP/FILE)

The U.K. is one of Saudi Arabia’s most reliable and central sources of weapons.


 

To intervene in Yemen, Saudi needed British arms, and to protect itself from the resulting international scrutiny, Saudi calls on the UK to be its defense. But that prized relationship may soon change.

In June 2019, the U.K. Court of Appeals ruled that the government broke the law with its arms exports to Saudi Arabia, overturning a 2017 judgement that allowed British arms manufacturers to continue selling weapons to Saudi, despite cries from human rights groups warning these same weapons were being used to slaughter civilians.
 

In June 2019, the U.K. Court of Appeals ruled that the government broke the law with its arms exports to Saudi Arabia, overturning a 2017 judgement that allowed British arms manufacturers to continue selling weapons to Saudi, despite cries from human rights groups warning these same weapons were being used to slaughter civilians.

The judges involved said in their ruling that it was “irrational and therefore unlawful” that the government was licensing arms exports without first investigating whether they were likely to be used in human rights abuses.

Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), a U.K.-based organization opposed to international arms sales, was at the forefront of this legal fight, pushing it through the U.K.’s court system for years before attaining this ruling.

The judgement, if it stands, sets a legal precedent requiring the U.K. to proactively investigate whether the weapons it exports could violate international humanitarian law.

On top of that; after the ruling was publicly released, the U.K. announced it will not sign any more arms deals with Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. Bahrain or Kuwait. Though the government will undoubtedly appeal the court decision, it remains a landmark victory in the struggle to hold human rights abusers accountable.
 

On top of that; after the ruling was publicly released, the U.K. announced it will not sign any more arms deals with Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. Bahrain or Kuwait. Though the government will undoubtedly appeal the court decision, it remains a landmark victory in the struggle to hold human rights abusers accountable.

Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), a U.K.-based organization opposed to international arms sales, was at the forefront of this legal fight, pushing it through the U.K.’s court system for years before attaining this ruling.

Al Bawaba spoke with Andrew Smith, CAAT’s main spokesperson, who believes the court victory is just the beginning in an international effort to halt arms sales to Saudi and other autocratic regimes.

The U.K.’s arms manufacturers have played a central role in supporting Saudi’s intervention in Yemen, signing deals worth $5 billion pounds since March 2015, when Saudi invaded Yemen. In general, “there was very little oversight,” of whether the arms exports to Saudi were going to fuel human rights abuses, Smith tells Al Bawaba.
 


(CAAT)

Despite there being a law on the UK’s books barring arms deals that have “a clear risk” of use in violating human rights, there was no burden for the U.K. to verify if there was such a risk or not.

And when international and Yemeni human rights organizations showed that U.K.-sourced weapons were being used to target civilians, the U.K. government simply ignored the evidence.
 

"It seems the government was specifically going out of its way not to ask itself questions which could be inconvenient because it would block arms sales."

In the decision, judges used this negligence against them.

“One thing the judgement points to is the tracker system, which the Ministry of Defense was using,” Smith says. This tracker, at one point, took account of potential violations of international humanitarian law [IHL] resulting from the arms deals, but the government actually removed the column from this tracking system’s spreadsheet entitled which would have documented that risk.

“So it seems the government was specifically going out of its way not to ask itself questions which could be inconvenient because it would block arms sales,” Smith.

The court’s decision, Smith points out, requires the U.K. to conduct a review of its exports in light of the evidence that they may have been fueling systemic rights violations in Yemen. 

“The judges were very clear this should be part of the process… You would think if you were selling arms to a known human rights abuser, you would think twice about doing that. But if you don’t ask that question to begin with,” then you never have to acknowledge those dangers, Smith adds.

Prior to the judgement, the U.K. had, for decades, sent billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, making the U.K one of Saudi’s most-trusted military partners.

“He was literally dancing for arms sales.”

The most infamous arms deal, nicknamed the al-Yammamah deal, was a “particularly corrupt” arms transfer according to Smith, whereby the U.K.’s BAE Systems would export fighters jets to Saudi. It started in 1985 but continued for decades into the mid 2000s, totaling over 100 billion pounds in today’s currency.

Initial investigations into the deal revealed a 60 million pound slush fund to pay off corrupt Saudi officials and a host of conflicts of interests.

The U.K., however, was hellbent on executing the deal and halted a Serious Fraud Office inquiry into the deal in 2006, for fear the findings would jeopardize the countries’ profitable relationship with one another.

Some of the jets the U.K. sold to Saudi are now being used in the Yemen War.


A Yemeni man walks through rubble (AFP/FILE)

To highlight how far the U.K. was willing to go to sell arms to Saudi, Smith recalls Prince Charles’ 2014 visit to Saudi, where he participated in a customary sword dance in an event sponsored by MBDA—a U.K. arms company partly owned by BAE Systems.

“He was literally dancing for arms sales,” Smith says.

“What that episode really highlighted was they depths that the entire UK establishment will go to in order to help BAE Systems sell weapons to the Saudi regime.”

“Ultimately a point we have to remember is that the overwhelming majority of people are on our side."

The political atmosphere in the U.K. began to change in 2018, when Saudi bombed a school bus full of children in Yemen and then assassinated Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Outrage over Saudi’s brazen tactics reached a boiling point in the U.K., where protesters and politicians alike criticized the desert Kingdom’s behavior. 

The court decision won by CAAT reflects the U.K’s national re-evaluation of its relationship with Saudi.

CAAT is now consulting with similar organizations throughout Europe, which are pushing to stop arms sales to Saudi. 

“Ultimately a point we have to remember is that the overwhelming majority of people are on our side,” Smith says.

“We just need to make sure we’re doing everything we can do mobilize that public opinion, but the courts are a vitally important place for those questions to be asked.”

To listen to the full conversation, click here:
 


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