UK Court Allows Saudi Arms Sales as May Suppresses Damning Report
After viewing evidence kept secret from the public, London’s High Court has rejected a bid to end weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which brought the case, says the arms deal makes Britain complicit in Saudi Arabia’s devastating bombing of Yemen
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.
The U.K. High Court has dismissed a challenge to the British government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Campaign Against Arms Trade filed a court challenge that argued selling weapons to Saudi Arabia violates international law and Britain’s own export licenses. Britain and the U.S. are supporting the devastating Saudi war on Yemen.
But when the case went before the High Court, it was largely held in secret. More than half of the hearing was closed to everyone but the government and the court. The British government presented what the judges called more sophisticated sources of information that couldn’t be made public for, quote, “national security reasons.”
On Monday, the court ruled the arms sales can proceed. This comes as the British government is refusing to release a report that ties Saudi Arabia to the funding of extremists. In Parliament, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn criticized British Prime Minister Theresa May.
JEREMY CORBYN: Will she halt immoral arms sales to Saudi Arabia as Germany has done, and back Germany’s goal to end the bombing in Yemen? We’ve heard the Prime Minister talk about safe spaces for terrorist finance. So why has her government sat on the report into foreign funding of extremism and radicalization in the U.K.? When will this report be released?
THERESA MAY: He refers to the question of the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. I welcome the High Court judgment today. I think this shows – of course, my right honorable friend, the Defense Secretary, will be making a statement on this later this afternoon – but it shows that we are, indeed, we do in this country operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.
AARON MATÉ: Joining us to discuss the High Court decision is Andrew Smith, spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, or the CAAT, which brought the case. Andrew, welcome.
ANDREW SMITH: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Thanks for joining us. Talk about this case that you guys filed and your response to this decision on Monday.
ANDREW SMITH: Well, clearly the verdict that the court reached was very disappointing, very, very disappointing, and we disagree with it in the strongest terms. We’re already pursuing an appeal against it.
The basis for our case is that U.K. arms export criteria very clearly says if there is a clear risk that weapons might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law, that arms export should not go ahead. Saudi Arabia has unleashed a brutal bombardment on the people of Yemen over the last two years which U.K. arms have been central to. They have been widely accused of committing some of the most serious violations of international humanitarian law.
To cite just one example, last October the Saudi military bombed a funeral in Yemen, turning what was meant to be a scene of mourning into a massacre. 140 people were killed and over 500 people were wounded. Now, if that isn’t a serious violation of international humanitarian law, then I don’t know what is.
If this verdict is upheld, then the message it will send to the U.K. government will be to green light to continue arming and supporting some of the most brutal regimes in the world, such as Saudi Arabia. The message it will send to Saudi forces will be to continue exactly as they are, and to continue their terrible bombardment. Because you’ve seen, not just a massacre at a funeral, but also the destruction of schools, the destruction of hospitals, and the unleashing of a humanitarian catastrophe, which has seen a total breakdown in health infrastructure, and now widespread cholera and other life-threatening diseases in Yemen.
AARON MATÉ: So Andrew, let’s talk about evidence. I presume that when your group, CAAT, presented this case, you guys presented some of what you just told us about Saudi abuses inside Yemen. What did the government present? And talk especially about this secret evidence that nobody was allowed to hear.
ANDREW SMITH: Well, in a way it’s hard to talk about the secret evidence because we weren’t allowed to hear it either. And roughly half of their case was held in secret court. And it may well be that we will never know any of what was said. The judge, when summing up his verdict, did suggest some of the stuff from the secret hearings might go into the public documents at a later date. But there was no guarantee of any of that. So it’s very hard to comment on the evidence because we simply weren’t able to see it.
What we do know about the case which was in public, was that the government was relying very heavily on the word of the Saudi military. But Saudi Arabia is run by a brutal dictatorship which cannot be trusted to observe the most basic human rights of Saudi people. It’s run by a brutal dictatorship which has one of the most appalling human rights records in the world, and cannot be trusted to run free and fair elections.
Now, we do not believe for one minute that Saudi Arabia is well placed to investigate itself for war crimes. The other point we have to remember is that a lot of the government’s evidence is coming from departments who are actively involved in promoting the sale of the exact same kind of arms which are being used against Yemen right now.
At present, U.K. made fighter jets are being flown by U.K. trained military personnel and dropping U.K. made bombs on the people below. The U.K. has been utterly complicit in this devastation. Far from being a neutral observer, it’s been an active participant.
AARON MATÉ: Did the court address any of these concerns that you’ve just raised here?
ANDREW SMITH: The full judgment can be viewed on the Campaign Against Arms Trade website, which is caat.org.uk. We’ve also published all of the evidence which came out in court which we’re legally allowed to publish as well. So anyone watching this can draw their own conclusions.
We feel there were shortcomings in the verdict, and our lawyers are looking at it now in terms of drafting, in terms of putting together the appeal in terms of progressing the case forward.
AARON MATÉ: And this comes, as I mentioned, as the British government, Prime Minister Theresa May, is suppressing a report that ties Saudi Arabia to the funding of extremism inside Britain. Can you talk about what’s going on there, and the link between that development and this case here?
ANDREW SMITH: I think both are symptomatic of the toxic relationship between the U.K. government – in fact, successive U.K. governments – and the brutal Saudi regime. And regarding the specific report, this has come from investigations by The Guardian, a newspaper in the U.K. which has been looking into this. And the report in question, which the government had previously agreed to publish, is alleged to link Saudi Arabia to either funding or willingly ignoring the spread of violent groups.
Now, what we can say about the character of the regime is not just that it has an appalling human rights record, but also that in its bombardment of Yemen it has created the exact kind of circumstances under which terrorism is likely to flourish. We’ve see this in the growth of groups like Al-Qaeda in Yemen. It’s created a humanitarian catastrophe which fuels that kind of terrible violence.
Regarding where [crosstalk 00:07:55]
AARON MATÉ: Andrew, and not to mention just also the fact that since Saudi Arabia is fighting the Houthis, and the Houthis are fighting Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia is indirectly aiding Al-Qaeda by taking on their chief opponent.
ANDREW SMITH: Well, this is where it all gets very complicated as there’s all sorts of different groups. We’re also seeing this in Syria where there’s such a range of different groups, some of whom are being supported by Saudi, some of whom are being supported by Russia, some of whom are being supported by Iran. What we’re seeing is the pooling of more and more weapons into a region which already has quite enough arms in it, and the consequences may well be deadly. And the serious issue here is that we have no idea where these arms are going to end up.
Amnesty International did a fantastic report last year, which was looking at where ISIS, for example, is getting its arms from and finds that ISIS had arms from over 25 different countries, including the U.K. Now, that’s not because the U.K. is selling weapons to ISIS. It’s because the U.K. is selling weapons into a region, and the lifespan of a weapon is very often longer than the lifespan of a government or the lifespan of a political situation that these weapons are being sold into. And there is really no such thing as meaningful arms control once arms enter a war zone.
AARON MATÉ: Andrew, you know this is not the first time there’s been a controversy around inquiries about Saudi Arabia in Britain. And on that note, I want to read to you from a report, from The Guardian in 2008. Many people have perhaps not heard this story, but it’s quite striking. This is The Guardian in 2008.
“Saudi Arabia’s rulers threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London unless corruption investigations into their arms deals were halted. Previously secret files describe how investigators were told they faced, quote, “another 7-7,” and the loss of, quote, “British lives on British streets” if they pressed on with their inquiries and the Saudis carried out their threat to cut off intelligence. Prince Bandar, at the head of the Saudi National Security Council and the son of the Crown Prince, was alleged in court to be the man behind the threats to hold back information about suicide bombers and terrorists. He faces accusations he himself took more than $1 billion in secret payments from the arms company BAE.”
So, that’s The Guardian in 2008. The British government ended up, indeed, dropping this inquiry. Andrew, I’m wondering if you could tell us that story.
ANDREW SMITH: Well, that was a very interesting story. It was specifically regarding corruption and allegations of corruption taking place in a major arms deal which had happened between the U.K. and Saudi Arabia, which at the time I think was the biggest arms deal in the world, known as the Al-Yamamah deal, which saw the sale of huge numbers of fighter jets to the Saudi regime.
There was always very serious allegations of corruption at the heart of the deal. And so it went to an investigation of the Serious Fraud Office in the U.K. The Serious Fraud Office dropped its investigation following an intervention by the prime minister at the time, Tony Blair. They very shortly, after the investigation was dropped, by coincidence the U.K. secured another major fighter jet deal with Saudi Arabia. Which I think somebody of a more cynical mind might suggest was not a coincidence, and could be regarded almost as a bribe. Now, that’s not necessarily an allegation which Qatar’s making, but I think your viewers can draw their own conclusions on it.
Now the legal action that began, which was brought forward by CAAT looking to reopen the case and looking into the conduct of government in shutting it down, we lost in the first instance in the High Court. But then it went to the Supreme Court where the verdict was overturned. Now we’re hoping to go the the Supreme Court or the court of appeal to overturn the verdict we’ve just had, so there are parallels as well. And then eventually, the win in the Supreme Court was overturned by the House of Lords. But I think what it really did, what the inquiry really did, was it expose the toxic nature of that relationship and the amount of effort Saudi can put into lobbying U.K. government ministers.
And actually just to kind of look at the influence of arms companies, there was an autobiography released by Robin Cook, who was a former foreign secretary of the U.K. Now, he describes BAE Systems, which is Europe’s largest arms company and had been behind fighter jets which were being sold to Saudi Arabia. He describes their relationship with the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as being that he had a backdoor key to Downing Street. Now I don’t literally think that BAE had a key into Downing Street. What he was making the point was, was that Tony Blair was not going to make a major foreign policy decision without having BAE onboard. And that BAE Systems enjoyed an immense level of access to the most powerful office in the country. And I think that kind of is illustrative of the nature of the relationship which we are trying to expose and to end.
AARON MATÉ: Finally, Andrew, on Yemen. The death toll that we hear often is 10,000 people killed since the Saudi-led war began. But we also know that a child is dying in Yemen every 10 minutes from preventable illness. And I’m wondering if that is being excluded from this war toll of 10,000 that we’re getting. Because certainly a big reason why people are dying so frequently from preventable illness is because of the humanitarian disaster brought upon by the Saudi war. So I’m wondering if you can comment on that, and the scale of the devastation to Yemen right now.
ANDREW SMITH: On the 10,000 figure, the 10,000 figure comes from United Nations and it’s to be regarded as a base; they say “over 10,000.” But also, we have to remember that figure is six months old, and that figure is also from before the cholera outbreak.
Now my understanding of that figure is that it is talking about people who have been killed as a direct impact of war. But you’re absolutely correct. The death toll from a war cannot not just be measured by those who were killed as a result of fighting. It has to be measured by those who are also killed by the collapse of health infrastructure, by the collapse of life-saving services. We have seen the UNICEF report which said that a child is dying every 10 minutes. We’ve also seen some horrifying statistics about the growth of cholera, with World Health Organization’s suspect them as thousands of people a day are becoming infected by it.
And we may never know what the true humanitarian cost is in this devastating war. And it isn’t necessarily a cost which will end once the bombs have fallen. Because rebuilding the infrastructure which has been lost will take years. Rebuilding the lives which have been displaced and torn apart will take years. The death toll which we’ve seen from the United Nations should be regarded very much as a base, and certainly not as a limit.
We need to see more research coming from that because getting it aid, if it works, into the region and into that terrible situation is more important than ever. People are dying who simply do not need to be dying, even in these dire circumstances. The priority for countries like the U.K., which has been utterly complicit in the destruction, has to be to push for a peaceful solution and also to make sure that aid is reaching people in need. And to stop playing such a complicit role in the destruction which has caused so much needless suffering.
AARON MATÉ: Andrew Smith, spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, or CAAT. Andrew, thanks very much.
ANDREW SMITH: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.