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GLAN statement on UK government's decision to reinstate arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) joins other human rights organisations in expressing our dismay at the recent reinstatement of arms exports to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by the UK government. British weapons have formed an integral part of a devastating bombing campaign in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which has decimated Yemeni infrastructure and led to a humanitarian catastrophe. The government’s conclusion is, remarkably, that an analysis of the available evidence showed no “patterns of non-compliance” with international humanitarian law (IHL) by Saudi Arabia and the military coalition it leads.

As an organisation of lawyers with expertise in IHL and public law, GLAN has long recognised the need to present airstrikes according to patterns of repetition observed throughout this aerial bombardment. Patterns of attack are something the government claims to take into account when assessing future risk of the commission of violations of IHL using UK-supplied weapons. The purpose of identifying patterns that constitute serious violations, and of analyzing the kinds of procedures and practices leading to such attacks, is to assess whether their recurrence makes further, similar attacks more likely.

GLAN has identified specific problems in Coalition practices which give rise to routine violations of IHL and show that, far from being “isolated incidents,” such attacks are part of an ongoing trend. Indeed, this systemic problem reflects the Coalition’s consistent disregard for IHL and their long-standing record of violations of IHL. Based on this analysis, on 11 August 2019 in partnership with Yemeni organization Mwatana for Human Rights, we submitted hundreds of pages of evidence that unequivocally demonstrated such patterns to the UK government. In our letter, we presented three categories of patterns which wholly discredit the government’s conclusion. Our letter and the evidence can be found on our website. To highlight the need for parliamentary scrutiny, we further published a pattern-specific legal analysis on 20 May 2020, which is available here, and a shorter overview of the factual picture presented by the evidence file.

Contrary to the Secretary of State’s claim that incidents of concern did not form patterns because they occurred “in different circumstances and for different reasons,” we found that unlawful attacks categorically did have circumstances in common and occurred for recurring reasons. We identified:

  • Patterns of attack by “object type”: residential homes, targets with economic significance and civilians. Categorising attacks by object type not only signifies the risk of future similar attacks, but also – crucially – helped to reveal the Coalition’s unlawful reasons for attacking such civilian objects.

  • Patterns of attack by failure to adhere to the Coalitions procedures: Demonstrating – often through the Coalition’s own admissions - that these procedures were not being followed gave the UK government the clear information it needed to show that IHL was not being adhered to. The conclusion that no “systemic weaknesses” and no “lack of commitment to comply with IHL” is thus directly contradicted by the evidence submitted by GLAN and Mwatana.

  • Patterns of failure to respond to attacks and correct deficiencies in process, thereby failing to eliminate the risk of future violations: This included the failure to even admit that a large number of attacks have caused grave civilian harm. Our submission shattered the credibility of Saudi Arabia’s statements through exposing conclusive falsehoods – yet the UK government still found no evidence of a lack of commitment to comply with IHL.

The need to show patterns through evidence is also why we launched an investigations program with our partners at Bellingcat which is designed for use in legal proceedings. So far, Bellingcat has identified a number of incidents which the Coalition either entirely denies, or has made untruthful statements about. All 20 of the incidents Bellingcat has investigated have caused grave civilian harm, are either clearly or presumptively unlawful, and all demonstrate the disregard of the Coalition for IHL.

GLAN continues to maintain and develop an evidence database of incidents which combines all of the attacks known to us at the present time.

GLAN has also been working with arms trade control experts and legal practitioners to analyse the current state of domestic implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty and take stock of the alleged deficiencies of national licensing systems laid bare by domestic accountability efforts around arms sales linked with the Yemen conflict. The UK’s decision to continue sales despite the unequivocal gravity of the violations of the end-users of UK-supplied arms is one such example. The aim of this work is to further much-needed legal reform in this field.

For more information on our Yemen and arms control work, please see our case page.

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