This is the fourth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2020 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Campaign Against Arms Trade.
Criterion 2(c) of the EU Common Position on arms exports, which is also written into UK law (and therefore will likely remain after Brexit), states that an export license for military equipment shall not be issued if there is a “clear risk” that the equipment might be used to commit serious violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). CAAT had challenged the government’s continuing approval of export licenses for combat aircraft, bombs, missiles, and other equipment used in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, on the basis of the multiple, repeated attacks by the Saudi-led Coalition on civilians and civilian objects, documented by the UN and numerous NGOs with on-the-ground information, which CAAT’s lawyers argued surely meant a clear risk existed of further violations using UK weapons. The Government had argued that their close relationship with the Saudis, their knowledge of Saudi targeting procedures, and the training they provided, ensured that no clear risk existed; indeed, they had not made any assessment of the many hundreds of incidents of attacks on civilian targets of which they had been made aware, to decide if any of these were likely to be violations of IHL.
The judges ruled that any rational assessment of future risk must include as a crucial piece of evidence an assessment of past record. They ruled that the government must retake all extant export licensing decisions for equipment to the Saudi coalition, based on a lawful procedure. Until this review is complete, the government has agreed not to issue any new licenses for equipment that could be used in Yemen. The government has been granted leave to appeal to the UK Supreme Court, but has not been granted a stay of the judgment pending this.
There are therefore two major developments in this case to be anticipated in 2020: the Supreme Court hearing and judgment, and the results of the government’s retaking of export licensing decisions.
How the Supreme Court will view this case it would be pointless to speculate. As for the review of licensing, there are many possible outcomes, each of which might lead to different courses of action for those seeking to stop arms sales from fueling the Yemen war, and other conflicts worldwide. Some that come to mind include:
- The review could find that there has indeed been a pattern of violations of IHL by the Saudi-led coalition that means that there is a clear risk of future violations, resulting in the revoking of licenses for most or all equipment supporting the Coalition’s air war, and a future presumption of denial. This would be both fantastic and unexpected, and seems highly unlikely – much of the UK arms industry, BAE Systems in particular, is heavily dependent on exports to Saudi, and the government is unlikely to be willing to see this business terminated, including the huge servicing contracts BAE has with Saudi Arabia, supported by 6,300 employees in the Kingdom. BAE has received £29 billion in revenue from the Saudi Ministry of Defence (MOD) between 2009 and 2018 from sales and services, and the loss of this would be devastating to the UK’s “national champion,” whose interests carry huge weight in government policy-making.
- The review could conclude that there is no clear evidence of serious violations of IHL by the Coalition, and hence no clear risk of future violations, and thus continue to approve all licenses. This is certainly a possible outcome that would allow the government to achieve its objectives, but might be seen as too lacking in credibility to sustain, in particular in the face of potential future challenges.
- The review could find evidence of some violations of IHL, but conclude that this does not amount to a recurring pattern, so that there is still no clear risk, allowing most or all licenses to continue as before.
- The review could conclude that there has indeed been a pattern of serious violations of IHL, and that some previous licenses should not have been issued, leading to some being revoked; but that subsequent changes in Saudi policy, working with the UK government, combined with the lowering in the tempo of the air war that has been observed over 2019, means that there is no clear future risk, so that new licenses can be issued, subject to continual careful monitoring of Coalition actions.
In the event of any outcome other than a complete halt to arms sales for use in the Yemen war, CAAT and other interested parties will need to look carefully at the basis on which the conclusions were reached – in so far as it is possible to know them – and consider whether there might be grounds for further challenge. On the other hand, any outcome that concludes that previous licenses should not have been granted, on the basis of the record of IHL violations (such as 4), could open the way to looking more closely at other cases where the UK has issued licenses for arms sales to conflict parties; for example, to Turkey during their conflicts with Kurdish forces in Turkey and Syria (though the issuing of new licenses to Turkey are currently suspended), or even to the US for components and subsystems used in their many ongoing wars around the world, including drone wars, where their observance of IHL is open to severe doubt.
Meanwhile, another legal effort to hold both governments and arms companies to account is under way in the Hague: on December 11, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), in collaboration with Mwatana for Human Rights in Yemen, CAAT, Amnesty International, Centre Delás in Spain, and Rete Disarmo in Italy, submitted a 350-page Communication to the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) at the International Criminal Court, asking the OTP to investigate both senior government officials in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, and senior corporate officers of nine companies headquartered in these countries, for their potential criminal responsibility for aiding and abetting war crimes in Yemen through the supply of arms. This is a unique effort up to now, in seeking to establish the liability of corporate actors for their role in supporting war crimes through the supply of arms. The Communication challenges companies’ defense that they only supply arms where they have an export license on numerous grounds: for one thing, international principles on business and human rights expect companies to go beyond the minimum requirements of national legislation in seeking to prevent their business activities from having negative impacts on human rights, and this should be even more so in the case of the arms industry, whose products are designed to kill. Secondly, the granting of an export license does not entail an obligation to export, so that the company cannot evade responsibility to conduct their own due diligence; moreover, an export license may be valid for years, so that the situation at the point of delivery may not be the same as at the time the license was issued.
The file is now with the OTP. ECCHR and their partners hope that they will at the very least give the case serious consideration, and that this may even lead to the opening of a Preliminary Examination in 2020.
The road to any prosecutions would be a long one; however, so long as this file remains open, it may be hoped that the potential for personal criminal liability may have a cautionary effect on decision-makers in evaluating export decisions, whether from the government or corporate side, encouraging more rigorous scrutiny of whether there is indeed a “clear risk” of equipment being used for war crimes or other serious violations of IHL.
However, returning to the UK, there is one dark cloud on the horizon regarding CAAT’s efforts to hold the government’s export licensing policy to account through the courts. The Conservative Party manifesto for the election that returned the party and Prime Minister Boris Johnson to power for the next five years included a paragraph that has alarmed civil society and others concerned with the rule of law, promising to review the whole nature of the relationship between government and the judiciary, including restricting the possibility of seeking judicial review; this will still be possible for individuals whose rights are trampled by an “overbearing state,” but not as a way of “conducting politics by other means.” This is probably primarily aimed at the sort of case that saw Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament struck down in a scathing ruling by the Supreme Court in September, but may well also target cases such as CAAT’s.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Canadian province of Ontario, right-wing Conservative Premier Doug Ford passed a similar law in 2019, the Crown Liability and Proceedings Act, severely restricting the ability of Ontarians to sue the Provincial Government. Moreover, the law applies retroactively, and on the basis of this, the Ontario government is seeking to have eight previous class action suits against it – which the government had already lost, through all stages of appeal – thrown out. Given the Johnson government’s track record in terms of its respect for the rule of law (or lack thereof), it is not hard to imagine them pursuing a similar course in the UK, in spite of its flagrant violation of constitutional norms.
Could the UK government, if it loses in the Supreme Court, still try to have the case canceled by such means, and allow arms sales to Saudi Arabia to continue even after they have been shown to violate the UK’s arms export laws? We can only hope not, but it is not something that can be ruled out.
Sam Perlo-Freeman is research coordinator for the Campaign Against Arms Trade.