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Government failure to halt sales of arms to Saudi Arabia not unlawful, court rules

The High Court saw secret evidence.

A storm of criticism from human rights campaigners has followed a High Court ruling which allows the UK to carry on selling arms to Saudi Arabia, despite allegations they are being used to commit “war crimes” in Yemen.

Two judges in London decided the Secretary of State for International Trade has not acted unlawfully or irrationally in refusing to block export licences for the multi-billion sale and transfer of arms and military equipment.

In a ruling in which secret evidence played a significant part, the judges on Monday rejected a legal challenge by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

The group says UK fighter jets and bombs sent to the Gulf state are being used in the conflict in Yemen in violation of international humanitarian law.

The ruling against them was greeted with dismay and disbelief by humanitarian groups assisting Yemeni civilians who argue there is substantial evidence from NGOs and international bodies suggesting humanitarian laws are being breached.

Rob Williams, chief executive of charity War Child, said: “This is a terrible judgment. All evidence shared publicly makes it clear that the UK Government has blood on its hands.”

But a Government spokesman said: “We welcome this judgment, which underscores the fact that the UK operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.

“We will continue to keep our defence exports under careful review to ensure they meet the rigorous standards of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.”

Since early 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition providing military assistance in Yemen to President Hadi, who is facing rebel forces loyal to the former president in a country in which terrorist organisations are also operating.

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Campaigners outside the High Court (Jonathan Brady/PA)

CAAT says more than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen, and there is overwhelming evidence that UK arms sent to the Saudis have helped create a humanitarian catastrophe, leaving 80% of the population in need of aid. But the UK has continued to allow sales, with over £3.3 billion worth of arms having been licensed since the bombing began in March 2015.

CAAT is accusing the Government of being guilty of “repeated and serious breaches” of its own arms export policy not to issue licences once a “clear risk” had been established that arms “might” be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

Lord Justice Burnett and Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, sitting in London, disagreed and dismissed the campaigners’ application for judicial review.

They said their decision was based on both “open” evidence heard in open court and “closed” evidence submitted to them in secret court sessions from which the public – and CAAT – were excluded on the grounds of national security.

Special adjudicators with access to the closed material have been appointed to protect the interests of those not allowed into the secret hearings.

The judges said that the secretary of state had been entitled to conclude that the Saudi coalition “were not deliberately targeting civilians”.

Their ruling is of importance on several fronts, including its potential impact on the multibillion-pound arms trade generally, which could become even more important to the economy in post-Brexit Britain.

Andrew Smith, of CAAT, said: “This is a very disappointing verdict, and we are pursuing an appeal. If this verdict is upheld then it will be seen as a green light for government to continue arming and supporting brutal dictatorships and human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia that have shown a blatant disregard for international humanitarian law.”

James Lynch, Amnesty International’s head of arms control and human rights, described the ruling as “a deadly blow for Yemenis under attack from a Saudi Arabia-led coalition bolstered by UK-manufactured weapons”.

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