This is the first blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2019 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Rejecting responsible action
The UK’s own rules state that it cannot sell weapons to countries where there is a clear risk they might be used in serious violations of international humanitarian law. And the UK claims, repeatedly, to have one of the most rigorous control regimes in the world. Yet evidence of illegal civilian harm in the war is ongoing and growing.
So how does the UK government try to convince itself and others that its arms export policy is not in tatters? First, by batting away extensive evidence of violations of international humanitarian law, claiming it can't be sure they have happened. Despite a risk-based arms transfer control framework that is explicitly preventive in orientation, the UK government demands absolute certainty that its weapons have been misused before it will countenance a suspension – and even then, concerted action to stop weapons sales is not guaranteed. Second, by working with the Saudis to claim that if attacks on civilians have happened, they must have been a mistake. Central to this has been the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) – headed by a Bahraini military lawyer who oversaw national security trials of over 300 pro-democracy protestors in 2011. The JIAT has investigated only a small proportion of alleged incidents, and its methodology, sources and case selection criteria remain unclear. Its conclusions have taken the form of blanket denial; admission of limited, accidental civilian harm; and most frequently, a defence of air strikes that it says were carried out in line with IHL. All of these responses are contested by NGOs tracking civilian harm in the war. And third, that any past misuse of weapons doesn’t necessarily mean future misuse is likely. In the judicial review of export policy, a senior civil servant’s evidence stated that “Past behaviour is a helpful indicator of attitude towards IHL and towards future behaviour, but it is not necessarily determinative”. It is difficult to imagine civil servants or High Court judges articulating such a position if they were working in counter-terrorism policy, an issue area that operates on the basis of suspicion, intuition and an absence of evidence.
In these three ways, according to the UK government, while there may be a risk of weapons being misused in Yemen, that risk is not clear. The upshot is an exponential rise in arms sales since the war started, to the point where Saudi Arabia now accounts for almost half of UK arms exports.
Nonetheless, there may be glimmers of hope for an end to the war in Yemen. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has generated a crisis in US and UK policy that four years of war have failed to do. While his murder has little to do directly with arms sales, and it is dispiriting that four years of evidence of the misuse of weapons has failed to register in US and UK policy, it has shone a spotlight on the war in Yemen. Pre-talk consultations in Sweden between representatives of the government of Yemen and the Houthis ended on 13th December with an agreement that included a ceasefire in Hodeidah, steps to address the situation in Taiz, and prisoner exchanges. These are tentative, fragile steps that would mitigate civilian harm if adhered to, but still need considerable political effort to translate into an end to the war.
The US Senate has passed two resolutions to halt US involvement in the war and curtail its support for Saudi Arabia – a significant development. The US government has called for ceasefire – which sounds positive but may also be a move to block more radical action from Congress. In the UK, FCO Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt appeared not to know the US was going to make that call. The UK is making increased efforts to address the humanitarian effects of its own support for the coalition by introducing a draft UN Security Council resolution – but this has been blocked by the US. Domestically, a former defence attaché to Riyadh spoke out about UK complicity through its arms sales in October 2018 – the first acknowledgement of the recklessness of UK policy from the military establishment. And a judicial review of UK policy is ongoing: the High Court found in favour of the government in July 2017, but Campaign Against Arms Trade has been granted an appeal, which will be heard in April 2019.
These moves illustrate the ways that the UK government has been forced to expend greater energy in justifying its position, working with the Saudi-led coalition to engage in legitimation work, and devote greater resources to the aid response. Looking forward to 2019, the major milestone for British policy on the horizon is the judicial review appeal. Will the Court of Appeal show greater independence from the government than the High Court? What new justifications will the government roll out? Watch this space.
Anna Stavrianakis is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex.