Court ruling dismisses the challenge to halt UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Court ruling that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful gives UK government green light to continue to prioritise a ‘strategic relationship’ and financial gain over the lives of Yemeni civilians

Despite damning and voluminous evidence by the United Nations, the European Parliament and many NGOs, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, that the Saudi Arabian led coalition has and continues to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen, the High Court today dismissed a case brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) to stop the UK Government authorising the sale of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

In dismissing the challenge, the Court accepted that the Government was rationally entitled to conclude that there was no “real risk” that there might be “serious violations” of International Humanitarian law despite the UN estimating that 13,000 civilians have been killed and injured in the conflict. The report of a UN panel of experts uncovered “widespread and systematic” targeting of civilians, including the bombing of houses, markets, factories, a hospital and a funeral.

As of March 2017, the UK had approved 194 export licences for arms and related equipment to Saudi Arabia since the start of the conflict in Yemen, worth more than £3.3 billion. This is 10 times the combined amount the UK and US have spent on aid during that time.

This much-awaited judgment is a severe blow to civilians, including children, in Yemen who have been and continue to be indiscriminately attacked by the Saudi led coalition. Despite the Court accepting that Saudi Arabia has been and remains genuinely committed to compliance with International Humanitarian Law, since the hearing, allegations of international humanitarian law breaches by the Saudi-led coalition have continued, including the use of so called ‘double tap strikes’, said Yasmine Ahmed, Executive Director of Rights Watch (UK).

Ahmed continued, “This is an extremely disappointing judgment particularly given that the Joint Report of two UK Parliamentary Committees found that it was ‘inevitable’ that UK arms have been used in violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen”.

In the course of the hearing, it emerged that a senior civil servant recommended that arms sales should be suspended over human rights concerns. Ministers were advised that there were ‘significant concerns’ over the ‘acknowledged gaps in knowledge’ of the Saudi targeting processes and the military objectives of some strikes. However, the then Minister with responsibility, Business Secretary Sajid Javid, upheld the export licences despite acknowledging there was ‘uncertainty and gaps in the knowledge available’ as to how UK manufactured weapons would be used.

Intervening in the case, Rights Watch (UK), together with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, submitted that, by authorising the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, the UK Government risks breaking its international obligations by aiding and assisting breaches of international humanitarian law by the Saudi led coalition.

In coming to the decision it did, the Court accepted the UK Government’s reliance on confidential “closed” evidence that was not provided to CAAT or the interveners, and placed weight on the influential relationship that the UK Government has with the Saudi Government. The Court also accepted the Government’s conclusion that the Saudi-led Coalition was investigating incidents of concern, including those involving civilian casualties.

The UK Government’s reliance on confidential information from Saudi Arabia, and the strength of their review and investigative processes, is especially concerning in light of the fact the House of Lords International Relations Committee recently found that the Government’s ‘position of relying on assurances by the Saudis and Saudi led review process is not an adequate way of implementing the obligations for a risk-based assessment set out in the Arms Trade Treaty’. The Committee concluded that, going forward, ‘decision-making procedures must be more transparent and demonstrate unequivocal adherence to international law’.

Yasmine Ahmed, Executive Director of Rights Watch (UK), said:

“Rights Watch (UK) sought to draw to the attention of the Court our real concerns that the UK, in approving export licences, risks breaching its international obligations.

Notwithstanding today’s ruling, significant concerns around the Government’s broader policy remain. A concern that is reflected by the UK public, the majority of whom oppose arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Evidence made public during the hearing, and the recent report of the International Relations Committee, suggests that the Government’s current policy is unsustainable. To address the growing public concern over this arm of UK foreign policy, the new Government should undertake a wholesale review of its arms export policy, focusing on the adequacy of the ministerial decision-making process that leads to the granting of an export licence. In line with Rights Watch (UK)’s intervention in this case, the review should include an assessment of how the UK’s international obligations relating to complicity can be properly incorporated in the decision making process with respect to export licensing.

Confronted with overwhelming evidence of war crimes and profound public resistance, the Government must heed the International Relations Committee’s recommendation and ensure its arms export policy unequivocally adheres to international law, if they are to regain any credibility”.


Notes to Editors:

  1. Rights Watch (UK), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s full submissions are available here
  2. Human rights monitoring organisations allege that Saudi Arabia continues to use ‘double tap strikes’, which include second strikes on medical personnel and civilians providing first aid helping survivors of earlier attacks.
  3. The Joint Report of the parliamentary Committees on Business, Innovation and Skills and on International Development, published in September 2016, concluded that is ‘inevitable that any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the coalition have involved arms supplied from the UK’.
  4. An Opinium poll of 2,000 UK adults found 62 per cent disagreed with arms sales from the UK to the Saudi Arabia, with only 11 per cent supporting them.

For further information please contact:

Andrew Smith, Campaign Against Arms Trade at or on 020 7281 0297/ 07990 673232

Yasmine Ahmed, Executive Director of Rights Watch (UK) at or on 0203 6030 972

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