Britain’s government broke the law by allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia that might have been used in Yemen’s war, a court ruled on Thursday, after activists argued the weapons were likely operated in violation of human rights legislation.
While the court’s decision does not mean Britain must immediately halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia, it does mean that there is a stay on the granting of new export licenses to sell arms to the kingdom – Britain’s biggest weapons purchaser.
The United Nations has described the conflict in Yemen, which has killed tens of thousands of people including thousands of civilians, as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“The Court of Appeal has concluded that the process of decision-making by the government was wrong in law in one significant respect,” judge Terence Etherton said as he handed down the ruling.
He added that the government made “no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict.”
A British government spokeswoman said: “This judgment is not about whether the decisions themselves were right or wrong, but whether the process in reaching those decisions was correct.”
“We disagree with the judgment and will be seeking permission to appeal,” the spokeswoman said.
Britain is the world’s sixth largest seller of arms, after the United States, Russia, France, Germany and China, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Saudi Arabia accounted for 43 percent of Britain’s global arms sales in the past decade.
The legal action against the British government was brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which wants to end the global arms trade and argued that British weapons were likely to have been used in Yemen in violation of human rights law.
A Western-backed alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore the internationally-recognized government to power after the Iran-aligned Houthis seized the capital, claiming to fight graft.
The war has killed tens of thousands of people including civilians and children and has put 10 million people at risk of famine and the world’s worst cholera epidemic.
“The decision of the court today does not mean that licenses to export arms to Saudi Arabia must immediately be suspended,” the British judge said.
“It does mean that the UK government must reconsider the matter, must make the necessary assessments about past episodes of concern, allowing for the fact that, in some cases, it will not be possible to reach a conclusion.”
The Campaign Against the Arms Trade welcomed the judgment.
“The Saudi Arabian regime is one of the most brutal and repressive in the world, yet, for decades, it has been the largest buyer of UK-made arms,” said Andrew Smith from the Campaign Against Arms Trade. “The arms sales must stop immediately.”
Rosa Curling, solicitor of law firm Leigh Day which acted for the campaigners, said the government will now have to reconsider whether to suspend existing export licenses and reconsider its decision to continue to grant licenses.