UK on wrong side of law on Saudi arms sales, watchdog warns

Britain is “narrowly on the wrong side” of international law over arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Yemen conflict, a Westminster watchdog has warned.

It was “highly likely” that UK weapons had caused “significant” civilian casualties during the course of the brutal four-year civil war, the House of Lords international relations committee said.

The influential cross-party group said relying on Saudi assurances they were not targeting civilians was not an “adequate way” of fulfilling the UK’s obligations under an international arms trade agreement.

The government has faced repeated calls to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia after it began airstrikes in March 2015 against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who seized control of large swathes of the country.

Last year the United Nations estimated at least 6,600 civilians had died as a result of indiscriminate bombing and another 10,000 injured, although it acknowledged the actual figures were likely to be significantly higher.

In its inquiry report, the committee said that since the start of the conflict the UK had licensed £4.7bn of arms exports to Saudi Arabia and a further £860m to its allies in the international coalition against the Houthis.

Typhoon jet fighters and associated systems accounted for the majority of exports approved for the Saudis.

In evidence to the committee, ministers argued that the government’s licensing process was “narrowly on the right side of international humanitarian law”.

The committee however said: “Although conclusive evidence is not yet available, we assess that it is narrowly on the wrong side.

“Given the volume and type of arms being exported to the Saudi-led coalition, we believe they are highly likely to be the cause of significant civilian casualties in Yemen, risking the contravention of international humanitarian law.”

The committee said relying on Saudi-led review processes into incidents of suspected civilian casualties was not sufficient to meet Britain’s obligations under international law.

“We are deeply concerned that the Saudi-led coalition’s misuse of their weaponry is causing, whether deliberately or accidentally, loss of civilian life,” it said.

It added: “Export licensing decisions for the sale of arms always require fine judgements, balancing legitimate security concerns against human rights implications, and each situation must be assessed individually.”

Committee chairman, Tory former foreign minister Lord Howell of Guildford, said: “The humanitarian situation in Yemen is unconscionable.

“That the UK is the second-largest exporter of arms to Saudi-Arabia, and the fifth-largest donor of humanitarian aid in Yemen is a contradiction which the government must address as a matter of urgency.”

A government spokeswoman said: “The UK is doing all that it can to help parties to find a way to end this devastating conflict.”

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