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Arms trading - red

The UK continues to sell arms to regimes despite credible allegations of recipients' involvement in war crimes and the corresponding damage to the Arms Trade Treaty.

This scorecard assesses the UK's performance on key areas using impartial sources. Applying our methodology, we scored the UK red as its actions are undermining the rules-based international system.

Our rationale

In 2018, a UN Report on Yemen called on the international community to “refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict”. Two years earlier, two cross-party UK parliamentary committees made similar recommendations, calling for the UK to “suspend licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, capable of being used in Yemen”. The UK has so far ignored these calls, and in doing so, is damaging key elements of the rules-based system, including the Arms Trade Treaty.

Our analysis

Despite its obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) not to supply weapons that could be used to facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian and human rights law, the UK has become the second-largest global defence exporter, largely through the sale of arms to countries the UK itself has labelled “human rights priorities”.

Since the start of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015, the UK Government has licensed the sale of more than £4.5bn of arms exports to that country. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—another significant UK arms trade partner—have been repeatedly accused by independent UN reports of violating international humanitarian law, including most recently by the UN Group of Experts on Yemen who stated that the coalition’s attacks “may amount to war crimes”.

The UN says the conflict has precipitated the “world’s worst humanitarian disaster”.  A conservative estimate for civilian deaths caused by fighting between March 2015 and June 2018 is 6,475 - the majority by the Saudi-led coalition. The fallout is eyewatering: 50,000 children died in 2017- 130 every day. 75 per cent of the Yemen’s population need humanitarian assistance. Two million children remain out of school.

The UK’s conduct is under review via an appeal to a High Court ruling that, while the decision was “finely balanced”, the UK was “rationally entitled” to conclude that the supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia was lawful. Since then, UK-made weaponry has facilitated airstrikes which have destroyed a school bus killing 40 children as well as striking wedding ceremonies, funerals, hospitals, markets and boats carrying fleeing refugees.  Furthermore, the decision was partly based on the Court’s belief that there was a robust system of scrutiny in place, including via the Parliamentary Committees on Arms Exports Controls (CAEC).  In a recent letter to UNA-UK, the CAEC Chair cast doubt on this, stating that the “courts’ assertion places an unrealistic expectation on the committee”.

Despite the UK’s international obligations and clear UN guidance, the UK continues to fuel conflict through the export of lethal weaponry, adding to the enormous burden of human suffering.

Read UNA-UK’s recommendations

Photo: Expert Infantry/Three US Army (USA) Soldiers