You are here: UK arms sales call into question Government's commitment to international law

6 January 2016

On the world stage, successive UK governments have championed robust arms control policies. However, controversy surrounding recent UK exports at a time of reduced parliamentary oversight call into question Britain's commitment to the Arms Trade Treaty and signal a possible step back in terms of UK leadership on arms control.

As highlighted by UNA-UK's Chairman, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, in The Times (column reproduced below), the UK has granted 104 export licenses for military goods to Saudi Arabia since that country intervened in Yemen in March 2015.

Since then, the UN has reported that over 2,500 civilians have been killed in Yemen - the majority in airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. According to legal analysis by respected international lawyer Philippe Sands QC, such arms transfers are in breach of the UK's arms export control laws, as well as the Arms Trade Treaty - a binding international agreement intended to reduce the human suffering caused by illegal and irresponsible arms transfers.

Furthermore, many export licenses in the UK have escaped parliamentary scrutiny due to ongoing delays in reforming the influential Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) following the General Election last May. 

The UK's arms export practices are emblematic of concerns raised by Britain’s most senior Foreign Office official, Simon McDonald, who warned that the “prosperity agenda” was now “further up the list” of Foreign Office priorities than human rights.

Mr McDonald's view is supported by the UK's recently published National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, which reveals plans for additional support to promote UK arms exports, including the establishment of a dedicated team to support the negotiation and delivery of government-to-government defence and security deals.

UNA-UK calls on the Government to conduct an urgent review of the end use of its arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and other countries of human rights concern, to ensure human rights come before business interests and to set a positive example by implementing the Arms Trade Treaty to a high standard. UNA-UK also calls on the members of the four select committees (on business, defence, foreign affairs, and international development) to reform the CAEC and resume scrutiny of the UK's arms exports as a top priority.

UK is in danger of breaking its own arms trading rules - Sir Jeremy Greenstock

The Times, Monday 21 December 2015

As Yemen peace talks commence in Switzerland, bringing fresh hope for an end to a bitter and bloody conflict, the UK must reflect on how it can best support a durable peace process and stability in the region, beyond Syria.

This should include a pragmatic, not just a principled, examination of UK arms exports to the region and their potential effect on international peace and security. On Christmas Eve last year, British ministers rightly talked of an historic moment as the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) came into force, committing the UK to a strict set of standards designed to ensure that UK arms are not obtained by those who might use them in serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

In Yemen, both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels are widely believed to have violated human rights and international humanitarian law. UN reports show that, since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in March this year, over 2,500 civilians have been killed, the majority by coalition airstrikes.

The UK is a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia, and has granted 104 export licenses for military goods since Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen. In the light of legal analysis published this week by the experienced international lawyer, Philippe Sands, QC, the Government needs to review the end use of such exports to ensure that they are not in breach of the UK’s export control laws, including its international obligations. For the UK, previously a champion of the ATT, to continue to arm a country at the forefront of a highly controversial conflict like Yemen works against the emergence of strong international norms on responsible arms trading. 

The strategic importance of our relationship with Saudi Arabia is clear, and any diplomat will acknowledge that sometimes we need to make unpalatable compromises. Flexibility is important, and a strong feature of current UK foreign policy, but bend our values too far and they will break. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council since its establishment, the UK not only has a special responsibility in maintaining international peace and security but also a well-deserved reputation as one of the principle architects of the international order.

We must bear the costs of keeping this international order intact; it is in our own national interest. If the UK wants to meet its responsibilities in brokering peaceful solutions in the region – including a lasting ceasefire in Yemen – it should be willing to guarantee that its behaviour does not erode the rules-based system we helped to build.  An absolutely central part of this is applying international agreements, like the ATT, to a consistently high standard.

Image: UK-built Tornado G4 aircraft similar to those sold to Saudi Arabia. (c) Crown Copyright under the OGL (Open Government License), source: RAF