This week, anti-arms trade campaigners have been given permission to challenge the UK government’s decision to resume the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia in the high court. The new hearing will take place in a few months and follows the campaigners’ success in June 2019.
In June 2019, the High Court’s ruling that the UK must halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia came amid concerns that the arms were being used in breaches of international humanitarian law. The resulting court-mandated arms sale review confirmed that ministers ‘made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law,’ which clearly shows the government’s lack of deliberation for the people killed by their drive for profits. The review also concluded that there had been only ‘isolated incidents’ of bomb attacks in Yemen that breached humanitarian law. Regardless of whether the breaches were ‘isolated’, the government should be ashamed of any willingness to continue breaching humanitarian law. ‘Isolated incidents’ is hardly a reassuring conclusion that justifies resuming sales of bombs and missiles part-made by Britain’s BAE Systems.
Yet international trade secretary, Liz Truss, used the review to justify the resumption of arms sales.
As a result, the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia soared: in the third quarter of 2020, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss approved £1.4 billion arms exports as well as nearly £700m of bomb components and £100m of air-to-surface missiles.
Meanwhile, in November 2020, the government announced that 2021 overseas aid expenditure would decrease from the legislated 0.7% target to 0.5% of national income. Experts and diplomats have predicted that the cut will translate into a 50-70% funding reduction. While it is hoped that a Commons vote will be held to decide whether the aid cut is lawful, Boris Johnson is working to prevent the vote from taking place before the G7 summit in June. And Dominic Raab has announced that there is ‘no legal requirement’ for the government to hold a debate or vote in the Commons. The efforts of these key UK ministers mark another dismaying indication of the government’s prioritisation of politics and profits.
The government’s denial of aid does not stop there. In March 2021, the UK government cut around 50% of its financial support for the UN to alleviate the widespread famine in Yemen. In the words of António Guterres, UN secretary-general, the brutal reduction has put a ‘death sentence’ on the people suffering in what is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Add arms, subtract aid. We are left with an equation that increases death, decreases help, and equals no peace. It is an equation producing the opposite of what the government claims to stand for. The hypocrisy is shocking.
Heavily criticising the UK government’s aid cut, head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs, Matthew Lowcock highlighted the consequences of refusing to support people in a crisis, drawing a link with the 2015 exodus from Syria that followed a 2014 decline in international support. Lowcock’s comparison with Syria suggests that the government’s cruel decision to reduce aid will not only harm the people in Yemen, but will exacerbate humanitarian crises on the world stage, killing even more people in the process.
Like all wars, the background of the Yemen Civil War is complex. But the death of 250,00 people is not complex, nor is the fact that 80 percent of Yemen’s population depend on humanitarian assistance. And it is certainly not complex to realise that the UK government is a leading supplier of arms to the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen.
By cutting aid and increasing arms, UK government ministers have plummeted themselves into immorality, creating profit from death.
The anti-arms trade campaigners are hoping for their renewed legal challenge to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia: the UK government will be forced once again to acknowledge some form of moral compass.