British officials authorized the export of almost £1.4 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia in the quarter after the UK resumed sales of weapons that could be used in the war in Yemen.
Campaigners accused ministers of “putting profit before Yemeni lives” and said the figures highlighted the discrepancy between the UK and the US, which under President Joe Biden halted similar arms sales to Riyadh last week.
Britain had resumed unrestricted arms sales early in July 2020, after concluding there were only “isolated incidents” of civilian casualties from bombing raids conducted by the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels.
Official figures released on Tuesday showed that in the period following the restart – the quarter between July and September – the UK authorised £1.39bn worth of arms exports, of which £1.36bn were in the category that includes missiles and bombs.
Campaign Against Arms Trade said the deluge of exports demonstrated how far UK arms sales to Riyadh were dependent on the ongoing six-year conflict, in which thousands of civilians have been killed. Arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the preceding two quarters were a tiny fraction of the third quarter, at £8.8m and £17.5m.
Sarah Waldron, a spokesperson for the campaign group, said the data once again illustrated “the UK government’s determination to keep supplying arms at any cost”. She added that the UK could be accused of “continuing to fuel the war” – while the Biden administration had agreed to curb arms sales.
Last week the president announced the US would halt arms sales that could be used in support of “offensive operations” by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, leaving the UK, the second largest arms exporter to Riyadh, increasingly isolated on the issue.
On Monday, the UK insisted it would not follow suit despite pressure from some high-profile Conservative backbenchers. The junior Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said that Biden’s decision was solely a matter for Washington.
“The UK takes its own arms export responsibilities very seriously, and we continue to assess all arms export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria,” the minister told MPs in an emergency debate.
Saudi Arabia’s air force is accused of being responsible for many of the estimated 8,750 civilian deaths in airstrikes. While the raids have slowed during 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the attacks have continued, according to the Yemen Data Project.
At least seven children and two women were believed to have been killed in a suspected Saudi-led coalition airstrike in north-west Yemen last July, according to the UN’s humanitarian coordinator, Lise Grande.
Bombs made or partly made in Britain – and which have required a UK export licence – include the Paveway IV guided missiles made by Raytheon UK, and Storm Shadow cruise missiles and Brimstone air-to-ground weapons made by European arms manufacturer MBDA.
The UK figures show that between 1 and 4 August two licences worth a total of £698m covered components for bombs. Another licence worth while £100m was granted between 5 and 8 August for air-to-surface missiles.
However, the official figures released on Tuesday do not state which manufacturers received the export authorisations.
Martin Butcher, Oxfam’s conflict adviser, said the decision to export a total of £1.36bn of “bombs missiles and rockets” was immoral. “Once again UK politicians have put profit before Yemeni lives,” he said.
It is unclear if the US decision to halt some arms sales to Riyadh will in future seriously affect arms licensed for export from the UK. Raytheon, a US conglomerate, said last month it had abandoned a sale of another “offensive weapon system” to Saudi Arabia believed to be the $478m (£347m) sale of 7,000 Paveway IV bombs.
Britain had imposed a temporary halt on arms sales to Riyadh that could be used in Yemen in 2019 after the court of appeal concluded that ministers had not properly assessed the risk to civilian casualties from indiscriminate airstrikes.
Alyn Smith MP, the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesperson, said the UK could not argue it had a humanitarian role to play in Yemen while “simultaneously being one of the biggest arms dealers to the conflict”.
“The UK is totally isolated on the world stage in its unmoving support for a regime that is a serial human rights violator,” he said.
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