The use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen Contents


Our inquiry

1.The Committees on Arms Export Controls are a concurrent meeting of four select committees of the House of Commons—Business, Innovation and Skills; Defence; Foreign Affairs; and International Development—working together to examine the Government’s expenditure, administration and policy on strategic exports, that is, the licensing of arms exports and other controlled goods. The four committees have been cooperating since 1999 as each has an interest in defence exports.

2.Following our re-formation in February 2016, we decided to conduct an inquiry into the use of UK-manufactured arms by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in the conflict in Yemen. This was in response to public concern that such arms were being used in contravention of international law and the UK’s international, European and domestic obligations. We called for written evidence, looking at the following issues:

3.We heard evidence from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Saferworld and Oxfam on the crisis in Yemen and the evidence of violations of IHL; from Professor Philippe Sands QC on the findings of his and others’ legal opinion on the lawfulness of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the context of the conflict in Yemen; from ADS, the leading trade body for the aerospace, defence and security industries; from leading experts on our relationship with the Gulf and our arms export policies; and from Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development. We are grateful to all of those who gave oral and written evidence. This Report has been agreed jointly by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and the International Development Committee but not the Foreign Affairs Committee nor the Defence Committee.


4.After the Arab Spring protests in Yemen in 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreed a transition agreement to transfer power from President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in power since 1978, to his deputy Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The change in government did not translate into a change in governance and many economic and social problems persisted. As Saferworld reported, “deals made in the post-Saleh transition ultimately entrenched the same kleptocratic elite whose behaviour was driving Yemen into the ground–and Saleh was allowed to remain in Yemen with impunity to wreck further havoc.”1 The transition unravelled in the autumn of 2014 when the Houthi armed group, with the support of forces loyal to former president Saleh, seized the capital Sana’a and then moved south towards Aden in March 2015, forcing President Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia. Responding to a request from Hadi, Saudi Arabia formed a 10-member coalition, including Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain, amongst other countries, to intervene in Yemen to halt the advance of the Houthis and reinstate the legitimate government. Since 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led the military coalition in an armed conflict in Yemen.

UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia

5.The UK is a major supplier of defence equipment to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait have been identified as “priority markets” for defence exports with the UK Trade and Investment’s Defence and Security Organisation (UKTI DSO) and in 2015 over 30 per cent of all UK defence exports were licensed to Saudi Arabia. From April to December 2015, these licences included exports exceeding the value of £1.7 billion for combat aircraft and over £1 billion for air-delivered bombs. The Aerospace Industry in the UK is the second largest in the world and the largest in Europe. It employs nearly a quarter of a million skilled and technical workers across the UK with very significant numbers in the North and Midlands. During that period, Saudi Arabia was conducting an aerial campaign over Yemen. The then Foreign Secretary confirmed at the very start of the conflict that the Saudi Royal Air Force were using UK-manufactured arms in Yemen.2

Allegations of serious violations of International Humanitarian Law

6.Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict in Yemen. Since March 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented 3,539 civilians killed and 6,268 injured.3 All sides of the conflict are accused of serious violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) by the United Nations, other international organisations and non-governmental organisations. These organisations have documented a high number of potential breaches of IHL by the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis. The Saudi-led coalition has established a Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), and are investigating allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law. As of 4 August 2016, the JIAT had reported on nine incidents.

Compliance with arms trade law

7.UK arms exports are bound by the obligations within the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the EU Common Position on Arms Exports and the Consolidated EU and UK arms licensing criteria. Articles 6(3) and 7 of the Arms Trade Treaty, Criteria 2 and 6 of the EU Common Position and Criterion 2(c) all refer to respect of the recipient country for international law and require that export licences are not granted where there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL.

3 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Press briefing note on Yemen, 10 June 2016

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15 September 2016