One day after sanctioning 20 Saudis for human rights violations, Britain on Tuesday sent a very different signal to the government in Riyadh, ending a moratorium on arms sales to Saudi Arabia over its involvement in the bloody conflict in Yemen.
A court ruling last year forced the British government to suspend sales of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia because of the risk they would be used in violation of international humanitarian law.
But after a review, Liz Truss, Britain’s international trade secretary, said Tuesday that procedures had been revised to comply with the court’s concerns and that the suspension of licenses for the export of arms to Saudi Arabia was at an end.
Her decision prompted anger from opposition politicians and campaigners, protests that were sharpened by the timing of the announcement. On Monday, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, imposed sanctions on 47 people, including 20 Saudis accused in the assassination of dissident Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death caused outrage around the world.
While the murder of Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen are very different issues, critics said that imposing sanctions while also ending a moratorium on arms sales sent contradictory signals over the balance between human rights and realpolitik in Britain’s evolving foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia is a big market for British arms manufacturers. Between April 2015 and March 2018, Britain’s government licensed the sale of at least 4.7 billion pounds (around $5.89-billion) of military equipment to the Saudis, and a further 860 million pounds to its coalition partners.
Emily Thornberry, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on international trade, described the resumption of arms licenses to Saudi Arabia as “morally indefensible.”
Under British law, the government should not grant an export license if there is a clear risk that weapons or equipment might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Truss acknowledged that there had been some “credible incidents of concern” related to Saudi forces’ conduct but said that there was no systematic pattern.
“The incidents which have been assessed to be possible violations of International Humanitarian Law occurred at different times, in different circumstances and for different reasons,” she wrote. “The conclusion is that these are isolated incidents.”