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The government broke the law over its arms sales to the Saudis, court rules

Campaign Against the Arms Trade, represented by solicitors Leigh Day, brought legal action against International Trade Secretary Liam Fox

VICTORY was declared by anti-arms trade campaigners today as a British court ruled that the government broke the law over its sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

The Court of Appeal in London decided to overturn a 2017 high court judgement that allowed the government to continue licensing the export of arms to Saudi Arabia that may be used against Yemen.

After today’s judgement the government announced that it has stopped approving the sale of weapons that could be used in Yemen.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said the government would challenge the ruling but suspended new export licences for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners amid an internal review.

Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), represented by solicitors Leigh Day, brought legal action against Mr Fox in April.

CAAT spokesman Andrew Smith welcomed the verdict but said it “should never have taken a court case brought by campaigners to force the government to follow its own rules.

“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.

“No matter what atrocities it has inflicted, the Saudi regime has been able to count on the uncritical political and military support of the UK.

“The bombing has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. UK arms companies have profited every step of the way.”

Mr Smith said that the war could not have been possible without British arms sales, despite public opposition, and said campaigners hope the decision sends a message to other governments that they “can’t get away with this.”

The legal action was based on reports that Saudi forces had violated international humanitarian law (IHL) in their ongoing assault on Yemen. 

The law states that export licences should not be granted if there is a clear risk the equipment might be used in a serious violation of IHL.

While announcing the court’s decision, Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton said 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, and made no attempt to do so.”

Leigh Day solicitor Rosa Curling said the “horrors” witnessed in Yemen can no longer be ignored by the British government.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who sits on the House of Commons committee on arms export controls, spoke outside the court to demand a public inquiry into the sales of arms to the Saudi regime.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said: “This devastating judgement proves everything Labour has been saying for years: that ministers have wilfully disregarded the evidence that Saudi Arabia was violating international humanitarian law in Yemen while nevertheless continuing to supply them with weapons.

“What we now need is a full parliamentary or public inquiry to find out how that was allowed to happen and which ministers were responsible for those breaches of the law.

“This also shows beyond doubt why we need the root-and-branch reform of our arms export rules that Labour has promised, so these decisions are never again made by ministers in such a careless, reckless and arbitrary way.”

War Child’s Rocco Blume said: “This landmark ruling shows the UK government has failed Yemen’s children.

“As the UK continues to seek to make a name for itself on the international stage post-Brexit, now is the time to stand up for the very rules and guidelines that we claim to uphold.”

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the government was “disappointed” with the judgement and was seeking permission to appeal.

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