Britain is under increasing pressure to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia after Joe Biden said the US would no longer sell munitions that could be used in Riyadh’s “offensive operations” in Yemen.
Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence select committee, called on the government to “follow suit and rethink military sales”, seven months after the British government restarted them following a high-profile court defeat.
Ellwood, a former defence minister, said the UK needed to work with the new US administration in developing “a fresh strategy” to help end the six-year conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 Yemenis and displaced a further 8 million.
A Saudi-led coalition has been engaged in an indiscriminate bombing campaign against Houthi rebels that has led to civilian casualties and multiple allegations of violations of international humanitarian law.
The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia has been supplied principally by the US, accounting for 73% of sales, and the UK, accounting for 13% between 2015 and 2019, according to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute.
BAE Systems, the UK’s leading arms maker, supplied £15bn in systems and services to the Gulf kingdom over a five-year period to 2020, according to figures disclosed by the company in its annual reports.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow international trade secretary, said Biden’s first major foreign policy speech on Thursday should prompt a rethink among British ministers.
“For five years Labour has demanded the suspension of arms sales for use in Yemen and urged action to impose a ceasefire, open up humanitarian corridors and resume proper peace talks. For five years the Tories have refused. Now surely they must listen,” the MP said.
However, government officials said Biden’s announcement was “a matter for the US government”. A spokesperson said the UK “takes its export responsibilities seriously and will continue to assess all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria”.
One analyst said it was too early to determine whether Biden’s move would have any practical effect, but on a political level the UK was at risk of becoming increasingly isolated on arms sales to Saudi.
Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, noted that the US move followed a similar decision by Italy at the end of January. “All this builds up pressure on the UK to reconsider its own position, but it is unclear if will be enough to force a change in policy,” she said.
In 2019 a court case brought by arms trade campaigners forced the UK government to halt sales for a year, as judges held that ministers approving arms sales – including British components for Paveway missiles – had not properly assessed the risk of civilian casualties.
But Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, approved the restarting of unrestricted arms sales in July, arguing there had been only “isolated breaches” of humanitarian law by Riyadh, compliance with which was partly paid for by British taxpayers.
The kingdom’s air force is accused of being responsible for many of the estimated 8,750 civilian deaths in airstrikes. While the raids have slowed during 2020 because of the pandemic, the attacks continue, according to the Yemen Data Project.
Last July at least seven children and two women were believed to have been killed in a suspected Saudi-led coalition airstrike in north-west Yemen, according to the UN’s humanitarian coordinator, Lise Grande.
Charities also urged a British rethink in the wake of the US move. Pauline Checuti, of Oxfam, said: “For the sake of the millions of Yemenis enduring the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, it is time for the UK government to follow suit.”