UK Government breaking the law supplying arms to Saudi Arabia, say leading lawyers

The UK Government is breaking national, EU and international law and policy by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia in the context of its military intervention and bombing campaign in Yemen according to an analysis by eminent international law experts commissioned by Amnesty International UK and Saferworld, both members of the Control Arms coalition.

The lawyers, Professor Philippe Sands QC, Professor Andrew Clapham and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh of Matrix Chambers, conclude in their comprehensive legal opinion that, on the basis of the information available, the UK Government is acting in breach of its obligations arising under the Arms Trade Treaty, the EU Common Position on Arms Exports and the UK’s Consolidated Criteria on arms exports by continuing to authorise transfers of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia within the scope of those instruments, capable of being used in Yemen.

They conclude that “any authorisation by the UK of the transfer of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia… in circumstances where such weapons are capable of being used in the conflict in Yemen, including to support its blockade of Yemeni territory, and in circumstances where their end-use is not restricted, would constitute a breach by the UK of its obligations under domestic, European and international law.”

Any authorisation by the UK of the transfer of weapons and related items to Saudi Arabia… in circumstances where such weapons are capable of being used in the conflict in Yemen ... would constitute a breach by the UK of its obligations under domestic, European and international law.
Professor Philippe Sands QC, Professor Andrew Clapham and Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh of Matrix Chambers

They also conclude that the UK Government can properly be deemed to have "actual knowledge... of the use by Saudi Arabia of weapons, including UK-supplied weapons, in attacks directed against civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international law", since at least May 2015.

The UK Government asserts that it is not taking an active part in the military campaign in Yemen. However, the UK has issued more than 100 licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia since the State began bombing Yemen in March 2015. That includes more than £1.75 billion worth of combat aircraft and bombs for the use of the Royal Saudi Air Force.

In 2013, David Cameron hailed the Arms Trade Treaty as a landmark agreement that would "save lives and ease the immense humansuffering caused by armed conflict around the world." He said Britain should be proud of the role it had played in securing an agreement that would make the world safer for all. 

This legal opinion confirms our long-held view that the continued sale of arms from the UK to Saudi Arabia is illegal, immoral and indefensible. Thousands of civilians have been killed in Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes, and there’s a real risk that misery was ‘Made in Britain’.
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK

“The UK has fuelled this appalling conflict through reckless arms sales which break its own laws and the global Arms Trade Treaty it once championed," said Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director.

“This legal opinion confirms our long-held view that the continued sale of arms from the UK to Saudi Arabia is illegal, immoral and indefensible.

“Thousands of civilians have been killed in Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes, and there’s a real risk that misery was ‘Made in Britain’.

“The UK government must halt these arms sales immediately.” 

UK Government policy on Yemen is in disarray. The UK gives aid to help the victims of war while illegally supplying weapons that cause their misery.
Paul Murphy, Saferworld Executive Director

Saferworld Executive Director Paul Murphy said:

"UK Government policy on Yemen is in disarray. The UK gives aid to help the victims of war while illegally supplying weapons that cause their misery.

“If the UK seriously wants to sit ‘at the heart of therules-based international order’ as claimed in the recent National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, it must itself abide by the rules to which it has signed up.

“It’s time the Government acted as a peace broker, rather than an arms broker. The first step would be to suspend further licences and transfers of weapons to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

“With the start this week of peace talks, the UK Government should help turn the ceasefire into a permanent peace by stopping its support to one side of the conflict.”

Although the focus of their opinion was on the UK Government’s legal obligations regarding the authorisation regime for weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia, the lawyers underscored that all sides to the conflict in Yemen are accused of serious breaches of international law.

The conflict in Yemen has turned the country into one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Civilian targets including hospitals, schools, markets, grain warehouses, ports and a displaced persons camp have been hit in airstrikes by Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces. Since the conflict escalated in mid-March 2015, more than 5,800 people have been killed and tens of thousands wounded. Two and a half million have been forced to flee their homes. More than 80% of the population (21 million people) are in need of humanitarian aid, including two million children at risk of malnutrition.

All sides in the conflict are responsible for causing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The UK is not alone in sending arms to and supporting parties to the conflict. Several other countries have also supplied arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition now fighting in Yemen, with supplies to the Huthis shrouded in secrecy.

The agencies called on the Government to immediately take the following steps: 

  • Immediately suspend arms transfers and military support to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which could be used to commit or facilitate further serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Yemen.
  • Carry out a thorough and independent investigation into UK arms transfers and reported war crimes in Yemen.
  • Make every possible diplomatic effort to help bring the conflict to an end.
  • Continue to push for an end to the de facto blockade so that vital humanitarian and commercial supplies enter Yemen and reach those most in need.
  • Fully implement the provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty, and encourage all other arms exporters to do the same.