Does Anyone Really Believe That Saudi Arabia Respects Humanitarian Law?
Today's court judgement fails to deliver the truth, argues Chris Nineham
A British court has found that it is legal for Britain to arm one of the most despotic regimes in the world.
This is a court judgement, “necessarily long and rather dense” according to the judge Lord Justice Burnett, that very few people can have confidence in. The judge claimed that the secretary of state was rationally entitled to conclude that the Saudi-led coalition was not deliberately targeting civilians or breaking humanitarian laws.
But who really believes that some of the £3 billion worth of weapons that Britain has sold to Saudi Arabia in the last two years have not been used in ways which break international humanitarian law?
Not the UN, whose expert panel on the war on Yemen found last year that the Saudi led Coalition had broken international law numerous times. It reported that:
"(T)he coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes.”
Not MPs who have studied the matter either. Two separate parliamentary select committees found last year that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be suspended until breaches of international law in Yemen were properly investigated.
The Conservative MP Chris White, who chaired one of the inquiries into the exports said: “The government can no longer wait and see and must now take urgent action, halting the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition until we can be sure that there is no risk of violation.”
The draft report from the joint committee on arms controls exports (CAEC) which was going to endorse the calls for arms sales suspension was only scuppered by Crispin Blunt, the Conservative chairman of the foreign affairs select committee who organised a walk out to ensure there was no quorum at a crucial meeting.
War trumps law
This isn't really about the facts, the legality or the rights and wrongs of the issue. The truth is that arms sales to Saudi Arabia are far too important to the British state and British business to be interfered with on grounds of mere humanitarianism, legality or concern about the damage done.
Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest customer for the British arms industry, the part of our economy most favoured by the government. Close relations with the Saudis has been an essential part of Britain and the US's foreign policy for decades. Never mind that it is one of the most reactionary and vicious autocracies in the world imposing a draconian legal code with the utmost brutality. Never mind that, Saudi Arabia has been the number one source of funding for terrorist groups accross the Middle East for decades. The country is one of the centrepieces of the West's campaign to maintain its dominance in the Middle East, and for the Tories and the rest of the Westminster war party, that is all that matters.
Saudi Arabia was a key accomplice in the creation of the Mojahedin in Afghanistan to spearhead the West's campaign to drive out the Russians in the 1970s and 80s. It was the launchpad for the war against Saddam Hussein in 1991, the West's main ally in the Middle |East throughout the War on Terror and the organising centre of the clampdown on the Arab spring. In the last few months Saudi foreign policy - with a new leadership and with full backing from Trump and May - has become more aggressive and unpredictable. Its attacks on Qatar and growing belligerence to Iran threaten to widen the war in the Middle East.
Nothing symbolises the poisonous hypocrisy of British foreign policy more than our sycophantic relationship with the house of Saud. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade is appealing this disgraceful judgement, but we need to step up the campaign for a new foreign policy and a complete end to arms sales to one of the most dangerous states in the world.