Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir speaks during a press briefing at the Saudi Embassy in London on June 20 2019. Picture: AFP/ TOLGA AKMEN
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir speaks during a press briefing at the Saudi Embassy in London on June 20 2019. Picture: AFP/ TOLGA AKMEN

London — The British government said on Thursday that it would suspend issuing new licences for the sale to Saudi Arabia of arms that may be used in its bombing of Yemen.

International trade secretary Liam Fox announced the decision in parliament after a British court ordered the government to “reconsider” the sales because of their humanitarian impact.

“We disagree with the judgment and will seek permission to appeal,” Fox said. “While we do this, we will not grant any new licences to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which might be used in the conflict in Yemen.”

The share price of Britain’s BAE Systems fell nearly 3% within an hour of the announcement.

Future risks

Britain’s Court of Appeal found earlier on Thursday that the government acted illegally in failing to assess properly whether arms it sells to Riyadh violated its commitment to human rights.

Judge Terence Etherton said the UK government must reconsider the matter and weigh up future risks.

The government had “made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so,” Etherton ruled.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said she was “disappointed that the court found against the government on one ground” and would seek to appeal.

Thursday’s ruling was part of a long-running court battle that the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) nonprofit organisation launched against the British government in December 2015.

The high court ruled in July 2017 that the arms exports were lawful, but the Court of Appeal reversed that decision on Thursday.

Britain accounts for 23% of Saudi Arabian arms imports, and in 2018 signed a multibillion pound preliminary order with Riyadh for 48 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets.

Government figures analysed by CAAT show that Britain has licensed nearly £5bn in weapons to the kingdom since the start of the Saudi-led campaign in 2015.

The court judge stressed that Thursday's ruing “does not mean that licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia must immediately be suspended”.

Fox did not refer to existing arms sales contracts or not imply that all exports to Britain’s traditional Middle East ally would halt.

“This judgment is not about whether the decisions themselves were right or wrong, but whether the process in reaching those decisions was correct,” Fox said in parliament.

But CAAT said its victory should force the government to suspend all military equipment sales.

“This historic judgement means that the government must now stop issuing new arms exports licences, suspend existing licences, and retake all decisions to export arms to Saudi in accordance with the law,” said CAAT. 

The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and triggered what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

AFP