The debate surrounding the UK’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia has raged throughout Britain in our newspapers, on our televisions, and within our parliament. The latest iteration of the controversy is now before our courts.
The British Government’s support for the mission of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has been resolute. This is derived not only from the legitimacy of the Saudi intervention under international law, but also out of an understanding of many of our common interests in finding a political resolution to the conflict, securing Saudi borders and international waterways from attacks, and addressing the humanitarian disaster.
The Government has been solid on this policy question in the face of rising domestic criticism. But the issue before the UK courts is not the principle and policy behind the campaign, but rather its execution.
When the UK ratified the Arms Trade Treaty in 2014, it undertook a legal obligation to ensure that arms exports licenses would be revoked if there was a clear risk of exported weaponry being used in the commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
Whether the British Government has upheld this obligation is currently being tested in a judicial review brought by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. The High Court held hearings at the beginning of February, and we expect a judgement in a matter of weeks.
On many matters of foreign policy, the royal prerogative allows the executive to make decisions. The Government has wide-ranging discretion, only subject to specific laws and now customs and practice on committing UK armed forces to wars of choice being subject to a resolution of Parliament.
However, due to the Arms Trade Treaty we are now in the position of having a matter of great significance for our Government’s international relations resting in the hands of an independent judiciary, beyond the control of ministers.
UK-Gulf cooperation in addressing the crisis in Yemen must continue. We are in no doubt that our Gulf allies are indispensable partners in establishing the political, economic, humanitarian, and security conditions necessary for a resolution of the conflictCrispin Blunt
In Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which I chair, we were clear that in the ongoing judicial review the courts were the appropriate body to test whether or not the Government had broken the law. Having an apolitical institution that has the mechanisms to take into consideration classified evidence is patently the best way to ensure that the Government gets a fair hearing.
Without access to the full range of evidence, it has been impossible to authoritatively assess whether the Government has broken UK law, hindering the Government in arguing its case in the court of public opinion.
The lobby that opposes the arms trade and our relations with Saudi Arabia have already made it clear that regardless of the outcome of the judicial review, they will continue in their opposition. But the Government does not have the luxury of being able to disregard the High Court’s decision, notwithstanding any appeals to the Supreme Court. Even if it turns out that the laws are flawed, and there are questions over the suitability of the framework of the laws governing arms exports, the United Kingdom must uphold the rule of its own laws as they stand.
Considering the centrality of security cooperation as one of the cornerstones of UK-Gulf relations, the stakes are undoubtedly high. Drawing up contingency plans ahead of the judgement is difficult considering the wide range of possible outcomes.
Some potential rulings will be entirely manageable for our international relations going forward. Admittedly, others could be trickier and will require careful management by all parties. Outcomes that find any fault with the Government will undoubtedly embolden the lobby that calls for an end to all forms of support for the Saudi-led coalition.
However, it would be an error to assume that any finding against the Government amounts to a diminution of British political will to maintain our strong partnerships. The fundamentals of Britain’s engagement in the Gulf will go unchanged. As our Foreign Secretary noted in his keynote address to the IISS’s Manama Dialogue, “any crisis in the Gulf is a crisis for Britain… your interests military, economic, political – are intertwined with our own”.
This is manifested in our joint action against ISIS, combating violent extremism, countering terrorist financing, confronting nefarious Iranian activities, and alleviating the many humanitarian disasters we face.
UK-Gulf cooperation in addressing the crisis in Yemen must continue. We are in no doubt that our Gulf allies are indispensable partners in establishing the political, economic, humanitarian, and security conditions necessary for a resolution of the conflict. The misery of the Yemeni people has been truly immense. We should not allow anything to distract us from our common goal of finding the solutions that will ease their suffering.
Crispin Blunt MP is a member of the British Conservative party and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament. His twitter handle is @crispinbluntmp.