Today marks the one year anniversary since we won a landmark victory at the Court of Appeal, challenging the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
As a result of that ruling, we have stopped the export of new weapons for use in the war in Yemen. A multi-billion pound deal to sell more fighter jets to Saudi Arabia remains on hold.
This is significant progress, but there is much more to do. The government is fighting every step of the way to continue the arms sales. It is appealing to the Supreme Court for a final decision, with the hearing scheduled for 23-25 November.
Meanwhile it has still not complied with the Court of Appeal ruling that it should retake its previous decisions to allow weapons sales, and it is continuing to supply the war in Yemen.
We hope all CAAT’s supporters are well and keeping safe. A lot of CAAT’s work will be evolving over the coming months as we adapt to the current crisis. Staff are working remotely, local group meetings and activities are moving online, and we’re looking at how Covid-19 interlinks with our different areas of work.
Some parts of the arms trade are on hold too. The biennial arms fair at Farnborough, where weapons were due to be promoted to military buyers from around the world, has already been cancelled. But in other areas it’s important we maintain our scrutiny.
Increase in state powers and policing
From ramped up surveillance of citizens in China and Singapore to accusations of a racist, politicised response in Sri Lanka, governments globally are responding with measures that some fear could outlast the pandemic, and further harm marginalised groups.
The UK Government’s COVID-19 Bill contains powers lasting two years which give police new rights to detain people. While this may make some feel safer, it’s a worrying move while people of colour are already subjected to disproportionate levels of detention and state violence in the UK. Read more about the new laws.
As yet there are no confirmed cases of Covid-19 within Yemen, but five long years of catastrophic war have destroyed its healthcare system. Ahmed Aidarous, 36, a resident of the southwestern city of Taiz, told the Middle East Eye, “Advanced countries like America are unable to fight coronavirus so Yemen will be an easy victim for corona as there is no good health system or good leadership that can help.”
The Saudi-backed Yemeni government has closed schools and cancelled all flights, which had only just resumed for people who needed to leave the country to access healthcare abroad. Mwatana for Human Rights reports that at least 45 people had already lost their lives waiting for promised humanitarian flights to access healthcare.
We took action this month to mark five years of war in Yemen, and stand together in solidarity and resistance. While coronavirus means there is a risk that the war is forgotten, it’s as important as ever that we keep up the pressure for peace and end UK arms sales.
The first case of Covid-19 has been diagnosed at Yarl’s Wood, the immigration detention Centre in Bedford which holds survivors of torture and sexual violence, and where racist verbal, physical and sexual abuse have been reported. Already experiencing high levels of mental distress and self harm, now detainees face the risk of infection by Covid-19.
The Centre is run by the world’s 73rd largest arms company Serco Group, who work closely with the UK military sector, winning £92m of Ministry of Defence contracts in 2018. A legal case related to the health crisis forced the Government to release 300 detainees recently, but thousands remain detained across the UK. There have been over 30 deaths reported in UK immigration centres, and thousands of attempted suicides.
CAAT is developing its thinking around UK borders policy, as the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration strategy is part of a wider racist, state sponsored violence that keeps weapons flowing to countries where they predominantly harm people of colour.
It is also some of the same arms companies profiting from weapons sales causing many to flee their homes which profit again when they win lucrative contracts to provide security services and surveillance technologies at increasingly militarised borders. Find out more about the companies profiting twice.
Arms to ventilators?
In these turbulent and challenging times we will be looking for hope too – that in future when governments tell us things can’t change, we know that change can come almost overnight when the political will is there.
Rolls Royce, who produce military aircraft engines, and aerospace companies like Airbus which profit from the sale of fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, have been called on by the UK government to help produce components for ventilators in the fight against coronavirus. The case for moving our engineering skills from industries that take lives to ones that save them has never been stronger.
Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, recently called government economic stimulus packages in response to the coronavirus crisis as “a historic opportunity” to tackle the climate emergency. “This is a huge opportunity we cannot miss,” he said. “Here the issue is not only the level of money but the direction of the money”.
Find out more about the call to convert jobs in arms manufacturing to greener, more socially useful industries in the New Lucas Plan.
We can also see more than ever that our security is not advanced by wars, or by spending billions on nuclear weapons systems and aircraft carriers, but by building fairer societies that support the most vulnerable, and by investing in our public services like the NHS and social care.
Let’s work together to ensure that out of this crisis we create a Just Recovery, and build a world where real human needs, are prioritised.
Today we stand in solidarity with Yemen. At a time when millions of people across the world are concerned about food supplies and the ability of our health systems to respond to crisis, Yemen must not be forgotten.
Today marks five years since a Saudi-Arabian led coalition began bombing Yemen – five years in which Yemen’s health system has “almost collapsed.”
Security and Policing is an annual event organised by the UK government’s Home Office and the arms industry trade body, ADS. The event is a place where arms, border, policing and surveillance companies work and exhibit equipment and technologies together. Government delegations from across the world are invited by the the government’s arms sales unit, Defence & Security Organisation (DSO), and so the fair is an opportunity for relationships to be built and developed between these industries that work so closely together, but also with governments and states.
Last week, a coalition of European and Yemeni groups, including CAAT, submitted a dossier to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, asking them to investigate European government and arms company officials for potentially aiding and abetting war crimes in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and their coalition partners have been bombing civilians in Yemen ever since they entered the war there in March 2015. According to the Yemen Data Project, almost a third of coalition air strikes have been against civilian targets, and in another third of cases the nature of the target was uncertain. Around 100,000 people in total have been killed since the war started.
The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, as well as numerous Yemeni and foreign NGOs have documented hundreds of cases of specific attacks against residential areas, schools, hospitals, agricultural facilities, market places, gatherings such as weddings and funerals, and civilian factories, many of which have killed dozens of civilians, and where no military target has been in evidence nearby. These attacks are very likely to be violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL – often known as the “laws of war”), and many may be severe enough to be classed as War Crimes. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led partial blockade of the country’s air and sea ports has helped create a devastating humanitarian crisis that has already killed tens of thousands, and has put 24 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. There is a strong case that Saudi Arabia and its allies have been using starvation as a weapon of war, which would also be a war crime.
Who is responsible for these probable war crimes? And who can be held to account for them. Of course, those most directly responsible are the military and political leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other coalition members, who are waging the war, and the military officers who order and carry out attacks. Unfortunately, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and most of their coalition partners, are not signatories to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and neither is the Yemen where the crimes take place, the actions of these leaders and officers fall outside the jurisdiction of the ICC.
However, responsibility for the crimes goes well beyond those directly engaged in the war. Campaigners have long argued that those who supply the arms used to wage wars and commit such atrocities, while knowing full well how these arms are being used, share the moral responsibility. This includes both the companies that produce and sell the weapons, and the governments that sanction and promote the deals. But can they also be held legally accountable for their role in enabling war crimes?
Holding the guilty to account
Last week in The Hague, on the 11th of December, a coalition of groups, including CAAT, launched an effort to do just that, submitting a 350-page Communication to the ICC, asking the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to launch an investigation into whether senior arms company executives and government officials (political or civil service) involved in arms export decisions, may be responsible for aiding and abetting war crimes in Yemen. The coalition is led by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a group of lawyers who pursue international human rights cases, and also includes Mwatana for Human Rights (a Yemeni NGO that documents abuses by all sides in the Yemen War), Amnesty International, Centre Delas (Spain), and Rete Disarmo (Italy).
The Communication lists five countries as key suppliers of the Saudi-led coalition: the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. The companies listed include those selling fighter aircraft to the Saudi-led coalition:
BAE Systems (UK), producers of the Tornado and Typhoon aircraft used by Saudi Arabia;
Airbus Defence & Space S.A. (Spain), co-procuers of the Typhoon;
Airbus Defence & Space GmbH (Germany), co-producers of the Typhoon;
Leonardo (Italy), co-producers of the Typhoon;
Dassault Aviation (France), maker of the Mirage fighters used by UAE;
Other companies named are those selling bombs, missiles, and related equipment used in the war:
through its subsidiary RWM
Thales, who produce targeting equipment used to deploy the weapons.
As well as supplying a large proportion of the aircraft that make up the Saudi and UAE’s air strike force, the companies concerned also provide ongoing supplies of spare parts, maintenance and repair, technical support, and training, necessary to keep the aircraft flying. BAE Systems in particular has 6,300 employees in Saudi Arabia, without whose work the UK-supplied Tornado and Typhoon aircraft – more than half the Saudi strike force – would quickly be grounded.
While Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and UAE are not party to the ICC, the five European countries are. Thus, the Communication argues, the decisions taken by these governments and companies to export arms, provide services, and issue export licences, are taken on the soil of ICC participant countries, and are thus subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC.
ECCHR have produced a case report, and a set of Q&A, with more details about the case.
This case… may serve as a reminder to all those involved in arms export decisions… that their choices have potentially deadly consequences, for which they may one day be held to account.
The ICC and CAAT’s Judicial Review
This is of course not the only legal case relating to this issue; CAAT’s own Judicial Review case against UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, following our June 2019 victory in the Court of Appeal, where the judges ruled that the UK Government’s approach to approving export licenses for arms that could be used in Yemen was “irrational and therefore unlawful”. The Government has been granted leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, and we await a court date.
The case before the ICC, however, is of a very different nature, equally and important and complimentary to the Judicial Review. CAAT’s case is a matter of administrative law regarding government policy, and if successful it could force the government to change the way it goes about export licensing – in the best case, it might force a complete halt to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other coalition countries so long as the air war in Yemen is ongoing. The ICC case, however, is a matter of personal, criminal responsibility for war crimes, specifically the crime of aiding and abetting such war crimes through the supply of arms. At present, no specific individuals are accused; what the Communication is asking is for the OTP to investigate which individuals in the governments and companies concerned might be responsible for any potential crimes.
The road to actually placing any government ministers or officials, or arms company executives, in the dock at The Hague, is a very long one, and it is possible that no charges will ever be brought. But the principle that those who commit, or who enable and assist in the commission of war crimes, should be held accountable for their actions is of incredible importance. It would be better if leaders and senior officers and officials of the countries actually waging the war could also be held to account; perhaps it will be in the future. But so long as this case is live, it may serve as a reminder to all those involved in arms export decisions, whether at a government or corporate level, that their decisions have potentially deadly consequences for the people on the receiving end of their weapons, for which they may one day be held to account.