Johnson and Hunt Both Have Blood-Stained Track Records
There is no reason to believe that the next Tory leader will break from his predecessor’s policy of arming Saudi Arabia
On 22 July, the UK will have a new leader. As Conservative MPs Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson vie to become Britain’s next Prime Minister, many in the anti-war community reflect on the disastrous legacy that Theresa May leaves behind.
As PM, she oversaw the sale of billions in arms to Saudi Arabia as the war in Yemen raged on. British arms have contributed to the deaths of 85,000 Yemeni civilians, and helped foster what is now the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
May’s departure, as well as the Court of Appeal’s ruling of arms sales to Saudi Arabia as ‘unlawful’, are reasons to breathe a sigh of relief. But Brits who have fought to end the flow of weapons to the Saudi kingdom should not celebrate just yet.
Regardless of any foreign policy or character differences between Hunt and Johnson, May’s eventual successor will undoubtedly work to overturn the Court of Appeal’s decision. This would resume the sale of British-made weapons to Saudi Arabia and restore the U.K.’s complicity in Yemen.
Ahmad Al-Gohbary had little sympathy when a teary Theresa May announced her resignation outside of 10 Downing. The Yemeni influencer highlighted the thousands of his countrymen, women, and children killed in Saudi airstrikes, made possible by British jets and bombs. Al-Gohbary was right to blame May. Her government has contributed the lion’s share of the £4.7 billion in arms sold to Saudi Arabia since its intervention in Yemen began in 2015.
But May’s exorbitant weapons exports have not gone unopposed. Groups like the Stop the War Coalition and Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) have fought to end U.K. arms sales to the Saudi government. CAAT scored its first major victory on 20 June, winning its suit against Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, before the Court of Appeal.
The court accused Fox—as well as Johnson and Hunt—of having ‘illegally’ signed off on weapons exports without ‘properly assessing’ the risk to civilians. The verdict ordered the International Trade Secretary to ‘hold an immediate review’ of past arms sales to Saudi Arabia and barred any new licenses.
For a concerned Brit, recent developments seem too good to be true. With May leaving office and the suspension of future deals, change appears to be on the horizon.
But let us not be fooled by mirages. There is no reason to believe that the next Tory leader and Prime Minister will break from his predecessor’s policy of arming Saudi Arabia or respect the Court of Appeal’s judgement.
For one, Johnson and Hunt were implicated alongside Fox in the approval of now illicit arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Far from turning a blind eye, both men have wholeheartedly endorsed the sale of deadly weapons to the Saudi regime at the expense of Yemeni innocents.
Leaked e-mails from the summer of 2016 belay Johnson’s disregard for Yemeni lives. One e-mail dated 27 July reveals that the then-Foreign Secretary recommended the sale of components for laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia.
His call came days after an airstrike on a Yemeni potato factory killed 14 civilians. Despite the attack, Johnson affirmed his ‘increased confidence in the pre-planned and dynamic targeting processes’ of Saudi forces in Yemen, and was ‘content’ for the deal to go through.
A few weeks later on 13 August, Saudi jets struck a village school in Yemen’s Sa’ada province, killing 10 children and injuring 20.
As Saudi war crimes in Yemen continued to make headlines, Johnson remained steadfast in his defence of British arms sales to the Saudis. In October 2016, he warned of Britain ‘vacating a space’ that would be ‘rapidly’ filled by other countries lacking the same ‘respect’ for humanitarian law as the U.K.
A loose definition of respect, to be sure.
Jeremy Hunt is no different from Johnson. Largely picking up where his predecessor, Johnson, left off, Hunt supported and defended arms sales to Saudi Arabia from the beginning.
On 9 August 2018, less than a month into Hunt’s role as Foreign Secretary, Saudi aircraft bombed a school bus in the Yemeni town of Dahyan. The attack killed at least 40 children, and reignited the issue of arms sales in the national discourse.
Hunt was only too adamant when pressed by the BBC. ‘What happened with that bus was truly awful,’ he admitted, ‘[but] the complexity there is our relationship with Saudi Arabia’. Among several reasons, Hunt cited counter-terrorism: ‘We are their partners in fighting Islamic extremism… We stop bombs going off in the streets of Britain’.
Never mind that for the past two years, Theresa May’s government has been sitting on a report on Saudi funding of U.K. extremists.
Even as other Western powers saw fit to stop arming the Saudi regime, Hunt remained steadfast in his support. Following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Germany suspended weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. British defence firm BAE Systems immediately took a hit. Dependent on German components for its jets, the company’s shares fell approximately seven percent.
Hunt promptly wrote to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, calling on his counterpart to reconsider the ban. Evidently, Hunt is not only out to protect British citizens, but British business interests, too.
Even now as Hunt strives to differentiate himself from Johnson in his bid for party leadership, arms sales stand as a glaring exception. The Foreign Secretary recently invited Twitter users to direct their questions at him using the #BoJoNoShow hashtag, launched in response to Johnson’s nonparticipation in a Sky News debate.
Hunt’s desire to appear transparent was hampered by his total neglect of inquiries concerning U.K. complicity in Yemen. It is doubtful that he would dismiss the conflict as unimportant; he frequently tweets about the topic, even taking time out of his campaign to condemn the latest Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abha International Airport. He is making a conscious effort to avoid any queries which may shed greater light on his blood-stained track record.
The fight to stop British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, then, is not over. Regardless of whether Boris Jonson or Jeremy Hunt assume leadership of the Conservative Party we must remain vigilant – and active.
Easy ways to stay engaged are to continue utilising hashtags like #StopArmingSaudi and #YemenCantWait, popular among the anti-war community. Stop The War, CAAT, and Stop The Arms Fair routinely organise protests against arms sales and informative events on Yemen. With 42 percent of Brits still unaware of the war, these are crucial. Regardless of form, participation in the anti-war movement should continue and grow.
Irrespective of a Johnson or Hunt premiership, the onus lies on us to keep track of attempts to overturn the Court of Appeal’s ruling and continue to campaign whether or not they are successful.
We should be ready to mobilise if such an opportunity presents itself: attend protests and rallies, question politicians on social media, and make arms sales a focal point of the campaign.
In this leadership race, opponents of the arms trade face a critical choice. We can give Johnson and Hunt the benefit of the doubt, out of some unfounded optimism that they will somehow reverse course. Alternatively, we can recognise who we are dealing with in these two former Foreign Sectaries and press on accordingly.