Amid mounting concerns for the safety of the civilian population of the Yemeni city of Hodeidah, a group of arms control campaigners have written to International Trade Secretary Liam Fox reiterating longstanding calls to suspend UK arms sales to the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition operating in Yemen.
In an open letter, Amnesty International, Control Arms, Saferworld and the UN Association UK are urging Mr Fox to acknowledge his heightened responsibility to suspend arms sales in light of the “rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis” in Yemen.
Since last week, the port city Hodeidah - home to an estimated 600,000 civilians and currently controlled by Huthi opposition forces – has been under a sustained military assault from Yemeni government forces and a Saudi-led military coalition. With Hodeidah’s port crucial for the 22 million people (80 per cent of the population) dependent on humanitarian assistance, humanitarian agencies have long warned of the dangers of a major attack on the city for both civilians living there and for Yemen as a whole.
Having previously issued numerous calls on the UK to halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the wider coalition because of the clear risk that they could lead to breaches of humanitarian law, the open letter points out that the Government’s apparent acceptance last year of the “finely balanced” nature of the case for continuing to arm Saudi Arabia must mean the case has now become unsupportable.
Though emphasising that they do not accept that the legal case for continued arms sales is finely-balanced, the organisations’ letter questions the Government’s own stance, saying: “If the situation was judged by the Government as being finely balanced before the current military offensive in Hodeidah, then we have now surely passed the tipping point where the only legitimate course of action is to immediately stop arms transfers.”
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK's Director, said: “With yet another humanitarian catastrophe looming in Hodeidah, the UK must finally turn off the flow of arms to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
“The Saudi coalition’s indiscriminate bombing of Yemeni homes, hospitals, funeral halls, schools and factories has already been utterly appalling – with thousands of Yemeni civilians killed and injured.
“Rather than respond responsibly to the dreadful reality of an out-of-control Saudi-led bombing campaign, ministers have repeated their manta about ‘robust controls’ and relied on a narrow and highly technical legal ruling over the lawfulness of its arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
“It’s time for ministers to finally do the right thing on Yemen – no further arms sales to Saudi Arabia while this Sword of Damocles hangs over the entire Yemeni people.”
Last year the High Court in London dismissed a legal challenge from Campaign Against Arms Trade which had argued that arms transfers to Saudi Arabia should be halted because of the clear risk that the weapons supplied would be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen’s armed conflict. Among other things, the ruling (paragraph 209) discussed the significance of the “finely-balanced” nature of the decision said to be confronting officials and ministers.
The ruling – for which CAAT have been granted permission to appeal – was, however, narrowly focused on the rationality of the decision made and processes followed.
Since then, UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia have continued and civilian casualties in Yemen have continued to mount, with more than 6,000 civilians killed and 10,000 injured, more than half of these the result of the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition’s airstrikes.
On Friday 22 June, Amnesty will publish a new report – entitled Stranglehold – showing how the Saudi-led coalition has imposed excessive restrictions on the entry of essential goods and aid, while the Huthi authorities have obstructed aid movement within the country. These obstacles - compounded by a deadly Saudi-led military assault on the vital port city of Hodeidah - have exacerbated the already dire humanitarian situation in Yemen and violate international law.
The Rt Hon. Liam Fox
Secretary of State for International Trade
King Charles Street
cc: The Rt Hon. Theresa May MP
The Rt Hon. Boris Johnson MP
The Rt Hon. Gavin Williamson MP
The Rt Hon. Greg Clark MP
20 June 2018
Dear Secretary of State,
We are writing to express our alarm at the rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen and again urge you to immediately stop all arms and ammunition transfers to the Saudi-led coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Control Arms maintains that the threshold for halting transfers to the Saudi- and Emirati- led Coalition was met long ago. The latest offensive on Hodeidah has already led to many casualties with civilians trapped in the fighting and unable to access supplies of food and water under heavy bombing. Thousands have been displaced. Crops have been destroyed in the bombing and fighting; while airstrikes could cut off the port from the rest of Yemen’s population. All these factors increase the risk of a famine. If the situation was judged by the government as being finely balanced before the current military offensive in Hodeidah, then we have now surely passed the tipping point where the only legitimate course of action is to immediately stop arms transfers.
The UK has made its opposition to the offensive clear, however its attempts to dissuade the Coalition from proceeding have been seriously and directly undermined by the UK’s continuing supply of weapons to the Coalition, and its repeated defence of those supplies.
We support the recent letter from a cross-party group of MPs (sponsored by Andrew Mitchell MP, Alison Thewliss MP and Keith Vaz MP) which urges the Prime Minister to “use all available means to end this catastrophic military assault on Hodeidah Port by the Saudi and Emirati led coalition … [including] removing material support from combatants”.
We therefore call on you to immediately suspend existing arms transfers to any combatant party in Yemen; deny any further arms transfer licence applications until there is no longer a clear risk that arms might be used to commit serious violations or grave breaches of international human rights or humanitarian law; and act immediately to work with European allies and the US to make such a suspension universal, including through the imposition of an EU arms embargo.
We also call on the UK Government to suspend the in-country support for UK-supplied weapons systems provided by the UK MOD and its contractors. We note that Article 37 of the 1986 Al Yamamah Memorandum of Understanding, and presumably similar clauses in other Saudi-UK bilateral agreements, specifically provides for such a suspension in times of armed conflict.
All parties to the conflict have violated international law. The UK, as the Security Council ‘penholder’ on Yemen, a humanitarian leader, and State Party to the Arms Trade Treaty has a moral and legal obligation to prevent the supply of any weaponry which risks being used in Yemen as part of wider diplomatic efforts to help alleviate the catastrophic suffering of the Yemeni people.
Amnesty International UK
United Nations Association – UK
* Amnesty International https://www.amnesty.org.uk/