The UK is once again able to issue new licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia despite concerns the weapons could be used against civilians in the Yemen civil war, in violation of international humanitarian law.
Human rights campaigners have branded the decision “disgraceful” and “morally bankrupt”.
Trade minister Liz Truss made the announcement on Tuesday, saying the government had complied with a court order that came about after a legal challenge from campaigners and reviewed how the arms were used.
“I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL (International Humanitarian Law),” she said.
She added that incidents where “possible violations of IHL occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons” and therefore concluded they were “isolated incidents”.
British arms sales to the Middle Eastern country were ruled unlawful by the UK’s Court of Appeal in a critical June 2019 judgment, which also saw ministers accused of ignoring whether airstrikes responsible for killing civilians in Yemen broke humanitarian law.
The court’s decision did not mean Britain had to halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia but it did force a pause on the granting of new export licences to sell arms to the country.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which originally brought the legal action, said the decision exposed the UK government’s “rank hypocrisy”.
“The Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the government itself admits that UK-made arms have played a central role in the bombing,” he added.
“Only yesterday the government was talking about the need to sanction human rights abusers, but now it has shown that it will do everything it can to continue arming and supporting one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world.”
The UN has confirmed the deaths of at least 7,700 civilians in Yemen since 2015, but monitoring groups believe the toll is far higher.
The United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) called the crisis one of “cataclysmic proportions”.