This is the third blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2021 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Didn’t CAAT just win a case like this a year or so ago? Yes, indeed.
The story so far: In June 2019, the Court of Appeal, overturning a previous High Court decision, ruled that the process by which the government made decisions on export licences to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen was “irrational and unlawful”. Specifically, Criterion 2c of the government’s Consolidated Criteria on arms exports states that an export licence shall be refused if there is a “clear risk” that the equipment “might be used” for serious violations of IHL. Yet, the government had not even attempted an assessment of past patterns of violations of IHL by Saudi Arabia and the Coalition. Instead, it had relied on its ongoing engagement with and training of the Saudi government and military to conclude there was no “clear risk”.
The Court of Appeal rejected this absurd position, that a previous record of violations was irrelevant to an assessment of future risk, and the government had to stop issuing new licences to Coalition states for possible use in Yemen, and to retake all past licencing decisions on a lawful basis. (However, existing licences, including indefinite Open General licences, were not cancelled, allowing BAE Systems’ extensive support for the Saudi Air Force to continue unabated).
A year later, in July 2020, the government announced that it had completed its review, and concluded that all was well, there were only a “small number” of possible violations of IHL among all the hundreds of incidents assessed, and that these were “isolated incidents” that did not constitute any “pattern”. Therefore, there was indeed no “clear risk” of future violations, and that arms sales could continue without any concern for the potential civilian toll this might exact.
It is this latest decision that CAAT is challenging. The idea that there have only been a “small number” of violations of IHL flies in the face of a huge body of evidence from UN experts and Yemeni and international NGOs. These organisations have used highly rigorous methodologies and sources, and have access to on-the-ground witnesses, which the UK government does not. The evidence includes repeated bombings of residential areas, schools, hospitals, market places, agricultural targets, and many others, usually with no evidence of any nearby military target . According to the Yemen Data Project, almost a third of the thousands of Coalition air strikes since the bombing began in 2015 have struck civilian targets. The “patterns” of violations are plain to see.
The government have provided only the barest outline of how they have reached these, on the face of it, absurd conclusions. They have not said what constitutes a “small number” of cases, or what they mean by a “pattern”, only that the incidents occurred “...at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons”.
The next stage of this saga – which started with CAAT’s initial application to the High Court in 2016 – is for CAAT to seek permission for a new Judicial Review - “JR2” - of the government’s review of licencing in response to CAAT’s victory in the original Judicial Review. This starts again with the High Court, and could yet go all the way to the Supreme Court. (For those not familiar with the UK court hierarchy, check this). While the full Grounds of CAAT’s application are subject to legal confidentiality, the basic premises are straightforward:
1) We challenge the conclusion that there are only a “small number” of cases of violations of IHL, based on the huge volume of evidence above.
2) We likewise challenge the conclusion that there is no “pattern” of violations.
3) We argue that, even if there were no “pattern”, this would not be sufficient to conclude that there is no clear risk of future violations. Even a single incident could constitute a serious violation of IHL, and there can very well be a risk of further “isolated” incidents even so.
Since we know so little about the government’s methodology, or even the details of their conclusions, which they say must be kept secret for reasons of national security, we have no idea what evidence the government may or may not have to support its conclusions. If we are granted permission for JR2, most of this evidence will have to be heard in Closed session, where CAAT will be represented by security-cleared Special Advocates, who cannot disclose the content of the sessions to CAAT or our regular lawyers.
We do not know, therefore, what secret evidence the government might bring to these closed sessions in an attempt to justify their conclusions. But we find it hard to believe that there is anything that could reasonably gainsay the vast weight of evidence from so many credible and respected sources.
The way it appears to us is that, whatever the evidence, and whatever courts have said about previous decision-making processes, the government is determined to find a way to interpret things that allow them to maintain its relationship with the UK’s overwhelmingly largest arms customer, Saudi Arabia, whatever mental and legal gymnastics this may require.
We hope that the courts will exhibit similar scepticism. The government must respond to our Grounds for Judicial Review by January 22nd, after which the High Court will decide if, on the basis of these submissions, we have a case. If not, we may still seek a hearing to decide if the case may proceed. If JR2 does get the go-ahead, it will be months yet before it comes to court.
The case, as they say, continues.
Sam Perlo-Freeman is Research Coordinator at the Campaign Against Arms Trade.