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UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia unlawful, court rules

A London court on Thursday handed a partial victory to campaigners trying to halt U.K. arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the kingdom’s bombing campaign in Yemen.

The Court of Appeal ruling does not immediately halt U.K. arms sales or suspend existing licenses.

But judge Terence Etherton said the U.K. government “must reconsider the matter” and weigh up future risks.

The government had “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,” Etherton ruled on June 20.

The decision means there is a stay on the granting of export licenses to Saudi Arabia until an assessment is made, Reuters reported.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said she was “disappointed that the court found against the government on one ground” and would seek an appeal.

Trade minister Liam Fox told parliament the government suspend issuing new Saudi licenses for the sale of arms that might be used in the kingdom’s bombing campaign in Yemen.

The U.K.-based Campaign Against Arms Trade non-profit first launched its court battle against the government in December 2015. CAAT was joined by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Rights Watch U.K.

Thursday’s judgement came in response to CAAT’s appeal of a July 2017 High Court ruling that U.K. arms exports to the Gulf kingdom were “lawful.”

Amnesty International said it welcomed Thursday’s judgement.

“This is the first time that a U.K. court has acknowledged the risks of continuing to lavish Saudi Arabia with military equipment for use in Yemen. We welcome this judgment as a major step towards preventing further bloodshed,” Lucy Claridge, Director of Strategic Litigation at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

The U.K. accounts for 23% of arms imports to Saudi Arabia and last year signed a multi-billion-pound preliminary order with Riyadh for 48 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets.

Government figures analyzed by CAAT show that Britain has licensed nearly £5 billion ($6.4 billion, €5.6 billion) in weapons to the kingdom since the Saudi-led campaign began in 2015.

The London court judge stressed that Thursday’s decision “does not mean that licenses to export arms to Saudi Arabia must immediately be suspended.”

CAAT claimed a “historic” victory that should force the government to suspend military equipment sales to its close Middle East ally.

“This historic judgement means that the government must now stop issuing new arms exports licences, suspend existing licences, and retake all decisions to export arms to Saudi in accordance with the law,” CAAT said in a statement posted on its website.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the Yemen conflict since the Saudi-led coalition intervention in 2015, relief agencies say, and the fighting has triggered what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Other European nations have imposed embargoes on arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

In March, Germany extended its ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia by another six months. On November 22, Finland said it would not allow new arms export authorizations to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates over the situation in Yemen, following a decision by Denmark’s foreign minister to suspend exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia due to concerns over the Yemen war and Khashoggi’s murder.

On November 9, Norway said it would freeze all defense material export licenses to Saudi Arabia, including those for dual-use items.

But some other countries have stuck by the kingdom rather than use lucrative arms deals. In September, Spain said it will go ahead with the delivery of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, after earlier saying it would block the sale. The u-turn came amid concerns that cancellation of the deal could have jeopardized a €1.8 billion order of five Corvette warships.

France has also decided to maintain its weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia despite claims the kingdom is using French weapons in the Yemen war.

With reporting from AFP

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