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Challenging UK weapons sales to Saudi Arabia


Update 2023 Appeal News: GLAN and Mwatana file request to appeal High Court judgment green-lighting UK government weapons licensing to Saudi Arabia despite evidence of serious violations of international law. 

With GLAN’s assistance, Mwatana for Human Rights has filed a request to the Court of Appeal of England and Wales to appeal against last month’s judgment from the High Court on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The High Court upheld UK government licensing of weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen despite Mwatana and partners, Campaign Against Arms Trade, having provided extensive evidence of patterns of unlawful airstrikes causing grave civilian harm which we argue legally requires the government to halt all licences.  


The UK has licensed at least £8.2 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia since it intervened in Yemen’s catastrophic civil war in 2015. Airstrikes by the Saud/UAE-led Coalition have killed thousands of civilians and have contributed to what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In making a decision to license weapons sales, the government was required to assess whether there are patterns of concern in the Coalition’s past airstrikes. The government adopted an untenable and illogical methodology to do this, which wrongly filtered out the vast majority of airstrikes as either not “credible” or incapable of being a “possible” violation - despite substantial evidence to the contrary. The government’s ultimate risk assessment was therefore conducted on a number of airstrikes that was so small and unrepresentative of reality as to be worthless as an exercise. In reaching its conclusions, the government relied on as “independent” a Coalition accountability body that has been shown to be a sham by human rights organisations including the UN, Human Rights Watch and Mwatana.  


Mwatana further argues in its filing to the Court of Appeal that the High Court was wrong in law in endorsing the government’s position that the violations by the Saudi/UAE-led Coalition were “well within the margin of error” to be expected in this type of conflict - there is no such “permissible margin” in law for committing violations of international humanitarian law. The methodology defeats the purpose of the required assessment of what unlawful harm the Yemeni people have already suffered and what further harm they will suffer if these arms sales are allowed to continue.  


Radhya al Mutawakel, Chairperson of Mwatana, said:  "Wherever there is law, there should be justice. By this appeal and by the law of the United Kingdom, Mwatana is emphasizing for the world that none of the included incidents is an isolated incident, but all included incidents are patterns of violation against civilians in Yemen." 


Dearbhla Minogue, solicitor for Mwatana and Senior Lawyer at GLAN, said: “The High Court has heaped praise on the government for its licensing processes, despite the fact that the Saudi-Emirati led coalition has conducted airstrikes that have taken scores of lives. We are taking the government back to court and look forward to this wrong being righted on appeal.”   

Update: Hearing on UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia

The UK Government will be in the High Court on 31st January 2023 defending its decision to continue the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. The action is being taken by the campaigning organisation Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) will be there as our team is assisting Yemeni human rights organisation Mwatana for Human Rights to intervene in the case and provide the High Court with extensive evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes. 


Challenging UK weapons sales to Israel

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The UK is a major supplier of weapons to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – in fact, it is widely accepted that the Saudi-UAE-led coalition could not conduct its air campaign in Yemen without the UK's support. All arms sales are made under licences issued by the Secretary of State for International Trade who must refuse to grant a license if there is a “clear risk” that the weapon might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. 


The UK-based organisation Campaign Against Arms Trade secured a historic victory in 2019 after their challenge to continued arms sales was successful on appeal. As a result of the court’s order quashing the government’s licensing decisions the UK government has to make a fresh decision on whether to licence more arms export to Saudi Arabia. But in July 2020 the UK resumed weapons exports and a second round of judicial review proceedings were initiated to once again challenge these exports on the basis that this decision contravenes UK export controls.


Our Interventions

On 11 August 2019, GLAN and Mwatana submitted substantial information on patterns of unlawful airstrikes directly to the UK's Secretary of State for International Trade, along with a legal letter from our solicitors setting out why the case for the immediate suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The objective was to ensure that this submission gave the government everything it needed to accurately assess the risk of future violations – in particular by providing detailed witness evidence and comprehensive photographic documentation of attack sites and munition remnants collected on the ground in Yemen by Mwatana. In April 2021 Mwatana was granted permission to intervene in CAAT’s new judicial review proceedings against the government’s July 2020 decision to resume issuing arms licences. Mwatana's intervention has been coordinated and assisted by GLAN: read more.


GLAN and Mwatana have identified specific patterns of attack and failings by the Saudi-led Coalition’s accountability mechanism, the Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT).  In particular, the intervention highlighted many instances in which, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, JIAT concluded that the Coalition had not attacked the locations in question. Mwatana will be making oral arguments to the judge on these points in the High Court hearing taking place 31 January to 2 February 2023.   


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Legal Case

Other Resources

To illustrate the need for scrutiny of the government's actions, GLAN and Mwatana released airstrike evidence on 19 May 2020, in conjunction with a call for the urgent instatement of a full Parliamentary Select Committee on arms licensing. Read the op-ed on Open Democracy by Mwatana’s Bonyan Jamal and GLAN’s Dearbhla Minogue here.

To assist with the proper analysis of the evidence against international legal standards, GLAN also released an international humanitarian law (IHL) overview. This document introduces the core principles of IHL and applies them to the detailed evidence compiled by our organisations. 

All of the documents can also be downloaded from the documents section of this page.

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