Formal legal action has begun in the High Court to challenge the government's decision to export arms to Saudi Arabia.

Law firm Leigh Day, representing Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), has begun formal legal action in the High Court to challenge the government's decision to export arms to Saudi Arabia. This follows increasing evidence that Saudi forces are violating international humanitarian law (IHL) in Yemen.

If permission for the judicial review is granted, then the High Court will be asked to investigate whether the continued arms exports contravene the UK government’s commitments under UK and European arms export regulations.

As set out in the claim, a range of international organisations including a UN Panel of experts, the European Parliament and many humanitarian NGOs, have condemned the ongoing Saudi air strikes against Yemen as unlawful.

The violations of IHL law found by the bodies listed include:

  • A failure to take “all precautions in attack” as required by IHL
  • Attacks causing disproportionate harm to civilians and civilian objects The UN panel investigating the air strikes accused the Saudi-led coalition of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets.
  • A failure to adhere to the principle of distinction and/or the targeting of civilians and civilian objects and those not directly participating in hostilities, including facilities necessary to meet basic humanitarian needs such as electricity and water-processing plants.
  • The destruction of Cultural Property contrary to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict 1954 and its Protocols and/or a failure to adhere to the immunity to be afforded to such property during armed conflict.

Despite these serious allegations the UK government has refused to suspend any military licences to Saudi Arabia or to call for an investigation into whether IHL has been broken.

UK arms export licensing criteria say that licences should not be granted if there is a “clear risk” that equipment “might” be used in violation of IHL.

According to Andrew Smith from CAAT: “By any reasonable interpretation these criteria should prohibit all arms sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen.”

These points were raised in a letter before action sent in January this year to the Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills stating concern about arms sales to Saudi Arabia, particularly in light of alleged grave breaches of international humanitarian law.

The government’s response was received on 16 February and did not alleviate any of these concerns. As a result, the High Court legal action seeks the following action from the UK Government:

  • A refusal of further export licences for the sale or transfer of arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia for possible use in the conflict in Yemen, pending a lawful review by the Secretary of State as to whether such sales comply with the relevant legislation.
  • A mandatory order requiring the government to suspend extant licences for the sale or transfer of arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia for possible use in the conflict in Yemen, pending a lawful review by the Secretary of State as to whether such sales comply with the relevant legislation.
  • A quashing of the Secretary of State’s decision, communicated by letter of 9 December, to continue granting new licences for the sale or transfer of arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia in respect of such equipment.

Rosa Curling from the human rights team at Leigh Day, which is representing CAAT, said: “if there is a clear risk that arms exported from the UK might be used to violate international humanitarian law, the UK has a legal obligation not to grant licences for the export of military equipment and arms.

“We can see no reasonable basis upon which the government could conclude there is not such a risk in relation to exports to Saudi Arabia. The evidence in overwhelming.

“Our client has asked the government to reconsider its position, it has refused and so we now hope the Court will intervene to ensure these arms are stopped as a matter of priority. The UK government must not allow itself to be caught up in the appalling actions that are taking place by the Saudi coalition forces in Yemen.”

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “The bombing of Yemen has created a humanitarian crisis, and yet the UK government has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Saudi regime which has led it. UK fighter jets have flown overhead and UK bombs have been dropped.

“Despite overwhelming evidence that it has breached international humanitarian law, the government has continued to licence arms exports to Saudi Arabia, making a mockery of its own legislation. The licences should never have been awarded in the first place, and if arms export controls are worth the paper they are printed on, then the government must finally stop arming Saudi Arabia.”