Theresa May has expressed disappointment over the court’s ruling and said her government would seek permission to appeal. Campaigners say the UK-Saudi arms deal violates international humanitarian law.
A court of appeal in London on Thursday declared the sale of weapons by the UK to Saudi Arabia unlawful because of the Yemen conflict.
The court accepted the challenge brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) that accused the UK government of licensing the arms sale when there is a clear risk that the weapons use could breach international humanitarian law.
In its judgement, the court ruled that “the process of decision-making by the government was wrong in law in one significant respect.”
Judges said licenses must be reviewed but would not be immediately suspended.
“This judgement is not about whether the decisions themselves were right or wrong, but whether the process in reaching those decisions was correct,” a spokeswoman for the Department for Trade said.
“We disagree with the judgement and will be seeking permission to appeal.”
In its legal challenge against the UK-Saudi arms deal, CAAT argued that British bombs and fighter jets are fuelling violence in Yemen.
Yemen has been torn apart by a protracted civil war between the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Shiite Houthi rebels. In support of the Hadi government, Riyadh launched an air campaign against the Houthis in March 2015. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of backing the rebels, who have made significant territorial gains in the impoverished Middle Eastern country.
In their Thursday judgement, three senior judges said the British government had “made no attempt” to find out whether the Saudi-led coalition had breached international law.
The court said that the government must assess future risks of humanitarian law breaches when deciding whether to allow arms sales.
Arms worth billions
The UK licensed more than £4.7 billion (€5.28 billion) of arms exports to Riyadh since the start of the Saudi military campaign in Yemen in March 2015.
According to British media, weapons sold to Saudi Arabia include Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets, as well as precision-guided bombs.
Philip May, husband of the UK prime minister, works for a company that is the largest shareholder in arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, whose share price has soared since the Yemen conflicts.
The company, Capital Group, is also the second-largest shareholder in Lockheed Martin – a US military arms firm that supplies weapons systems, aircraft and logistical support. Its shares have also rocketed since both the Syrian and Yemen conflicts.
Andrew Smith, a CAAT spokesman, hailed the judgement, saying the regime in Saudi Arabia is one of the most brutal and repressive in the world.
“No matter what atrocities it has inflicted, the Saudi regime has been able to count on the uncritical political and military support of the UK,” he said.
The bombing has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.