Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson accused of ‘central role’ in arming Saudi Arabia as UK’s relationship with Riyadh reaches crossroads
Government reveals air to surface munitions shipments to Saudi have been halted by Hunt – but other arms sales continue
Ministers agreed to stop all new weaponry sales to Saudi Arabia last summer after the Court of Appeal ruled that exports were unlawful (Photo: Getty)
July 5, 2019 12:15 pm(Updated October 8, 2020 12:56 pm)
When Jeremy Hunt was asked last week at a Conservative Party leadership hustings for his views on Britain’s sales of arms used by Saudi Arabia in its Yemen bombing campaign, the would-be prime minister was ready with a polished answer.
He told his audience of party members in Exeter that as long as there was certainty that British-built weaponry could not be used to breach human rights rules, he was “happy” to see UK companies exporting products – from armour-busting ammunition to booby trap detectors – to Riyadh.
Mr Hunt said: “I think providing we follow [defence export] guidelines then I am happy for British manufacturers to benefit. But one of the things we won’t do is export arms if we think there’s a risk that they could be used in a way that could violate international humanitarian law.”
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£13m of weaponry
Just how happy he is highlighted in figures seen by i which show that in the first six months since Mr Hunt succeeded his fellow leadership competitor Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary last July, Britain approved the export of £13m of weaponry to its Middle Eastern ally and largest single defence customer.
The wreckage of a bus remains at the site of an airstrike in Saada, Yemen on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. Yemen’s Shiite rebels are backing a United Nations’ call for an investigation into a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in the country’s north that killed dozens of people the previous day, including many children.(AP Photo/Kareem al-Mrrany)
The existence of “open” multi-year licences for exports precision-guided munitions means that Mr Johnson has also personally approved the transfer of state-of-the-art British weaponry such as Paveway bombs, Brimstone missiles and Storm Shadow cruise missiles for use by Saudi fighter jets criss-crossing Yemen’s skies in a conflict which, according to authoritative estimates, has cost at least 70,000 civilian lives.
The cross-party House of Lords international relations committee concluded that it was “highly likely” that British-made arms were responsible for “significant” numbers of civilian casualties in Yemen.
Air to surface munitions sales halted
Export rules in place since the beginning of the Yemen conflict in 2015 mean that the Foreign Secretary has to be consulted by the Department for International Trade whenever precision weapons likely to be used in the war are sold to Saudi Arabia.
In a rare departure from Britain’s normally tight-lipped attitude to the scale of precision munition sales made to Saudi Arabia under so-called “Open Licences”, which permit an unlimited number of exports within a five-year period, the Government has told i that Mr Hunt has not approved any such sales for use in Yemen in his 12-month tenure as Foreign Secretary.
A Government spokesperson added: “Indeed, on the advice of officials, the Foreign Secretary agreed to reject two Open Licence applications for air to surface munitions.”
The same cannot be said for Mr Hunt’s rival in the race for Downing Street. The official figures seen by i show that during Mr Johnson’s two-year tenure in the Foreign Office, Britain sold some £880m of munitions to Riyadh, much of which would have required his direct approval.
It emerged earlier this month that Mr Johnson personally gave the go-ahead for a shipment of Paveway bomb components in 2016 a day after an airstrike destroyed a food factory in Yemen, killing 16 people.
While the former Foreign Secretary has – like Mr Hunt – called for negotiations to end the conflict, he has also been a robust defender of Britain’s support of Saudi Arabia.
Speaking shortly before resigning from Cabinet last May, Mr Johnson said: “The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting the legitimate security needs of Saudi Arabia and guarding against the danger of regional escalation.” Critics of Mr Johnson have pointed out that within weeks of his resignation, he accepted hospitality worth £14,000 to visit Saudi Arabia, a trip which he said had been undertaken to promote education of girls and women.
For his part, Mr Hunt has previously argued that it would be “morally bankrupt” for Britain to end its exports and sever ties with the oil-rich desert kingdom.
And yet, the release of the arms sales data comes as Britain – and whichever of Mr Johnson or Mr Hunt becomes prime minister within the next fortnight – find themselves at a crossroads in the UK’s hitherto highly lucrative relationship with Saudi Arabia as the most generous purchaser of UK weaponry – accounting for a quarter of all sales made by Britain’s defence industry in the last decade. In the last four years alone, Britain has given the green light to arms sales to Saudi Arabia worth £4.7bn. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in October (Photo: Hasan Jamali/AP)
The gruesome murder last October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government goons believed by many to have been acting on behalf of the country’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had already placed Britain under intense pressure to distance itself from Riyadh.
Spoke in the wheel of the arms sales regime
But a fortnight ago, the Court of Appeal put a spoke in the wheel of Britain’s arms sales regime, which the Government routinely insists is among the most stringent in the world, when three judges ruled that ministers in charge of approving weaponry export licences had in effect turned a blind eye to whether or not the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen had breached international humanitarian law (IHL).
In a judgement which stands in contrast to Mr Hunt’s statement to the Exeter hustings, Master of the Rolls and senior judge Sir Terence Etherton found that ministers had breached British law when they “made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so.”
The ruling resulted in the immediate suspension of all new arms sales to Saudi Arabia – and a review of previous deals – while International Trade Secretary Liam Fox promised an appeal, insisting that it was the process leading to exports that was under scrutiny rather than whether or it not it is ethical to allow such exports.
Both the Labour Party and campaigners have demanded that the Government follow in the footsteps of a growing list of countries such as Germany and Switzerland in banning defence sales to Saudi Arabia while the Yemen campaign is ongoing. At the same time, scrutiny is also growing of the decisions made by ministers including Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson.
Protesters stage a demonstration against the ongoing violence in Yemen (Getty)
Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which brought the court case, said: “Both men have played an utterly central and complicit role in arming and supporting the Saudi-led destruction of Yemen. Whoever is the next prime minister must finally stop the arms sales and end UK support for this terrible dictatorship.”
According to a number of legal experts, ministers involved in arms deal approvals should now be looking over their shoulders for further legal cases seeking to establish whether export decisions were taken in the knowledge that British weaponry was likely to be used for unlawful or even criminal purposes in the Yemen conflict. Independent analysis, including by the United Nations, has accused both sides of deliberately targeting infrastructure including schools and hospitals.
Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a member of the cross-parliament Committees on Arms Control, told i: “Boris and Hunt were legally responsible for ensuring that allegations of civilian targeting by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen were taken into account when new arms export licences were issues.
“The court not only found that they failed to do this but that ignoring IHL violations was a deliberate policy… Lawyers tell me that there is a case to be heard for prosecuting these men and other ministers for aiding and abetting war crimes.”
Westminster sources described such a scenario as “far-fetched”.
Nonetheless, officials acknowledge that the “operating environment” for Britain’s links with Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly difficult as efforts to secure a peace in Yemen yield modest results. It emerged this week that one of the major funders of Mr Hunt’s leadership campaign is Ken Costa, Britain’s special representative to the modernisation programme being championed by MBS.
One Whitehall source said: “The argument that supporting the Saudi war machine allows us to exert pressure for peace is in significant danger of beginning to look a little stretched.”
Two low-flying Eurofighter Typhoons take off from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. The state-of-the art jet, made companies including Britain’s BAE Systems, has secured export deals to countries including Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. (Photo: Getty)
At the same time, Britain’s defence industry, which supports thousands of jobs and secures annual exports worth some £6bn a year, is watching to see whether the next occupant of Downing Street will dare to seek to reinvigorate its links with the House of Saud.
In March last year, Theresa May signed a memorandum of intent with the Crown Prince for a fresh £10bn order of 48 Typhoon jets made by Britain’s largest defence firm, BAE Systems, and its partners.
In its annual report issued in March, the company stated: “The prevailing geopolitical climate has created an unavoidable delay in translating the March 2018 Memorandum of Intent… into a confirmed order.”
As the Whitehall source put it: “The truth is that there isn’t much sign of the geopolitical weather changing any time soon.”
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