Arms sales further questioned

Summary: the Senate in Washington and the Court of Appeal in London find fault with current policy on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday 20 June there were significant developments in both the USA and the UK which may affect arms sales to Saudi Arabia (considered in our posting of 7 June), and in the US case also to the UAE and Jordan.

As had been expected the US Senate voted to block 22 arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan estimated to be worth more than $8 million and including Paveway precision munitions, F-15 engines, and Patriot missiles for the UAE (listed in detail at link). The vote on the main resolution was 53/45 with seven Republican senators joining the Democrats. Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat) said “For months upon months, this administration has failed to demonstrate how equipping the Saudis with more weapons would improve the Saudis’ respect for human rights in Yemen or advance America’s own values and national security interests.” Senator Chris Murphy (Democrat) said that if lawmakers didn’t try to block the sale they were effectively allowing this administration and future administrations to ignore Congress on arms sales. The House of Representatives is expected to pass similar resolutions.

However it is expected that President Trump will exercise a veto, and neither chamber is expected to raise the necessary two thirds majority to override the veto. The White House had issued a statement in advance: the sale “directly supports the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by improving the security of friendly countries that continue to be important forces for political and economic stability in the Middle East.” Halting sales would have unintended consequences; “much of the transatlantic defense industry is highly integrated and reliant on United States components and intellectual property — cooperation that ensures interoperability, which in turn makes NATO stronger. The proposed joint resolutions would threaten the reliability of the United States as a partner in defense [research and development], as a supplier of defense equipment, and as a stalwart for ensuring NATO interoperability.”

A report in The Hill comments that this is an unprecedented move reflecting frustration in Congress about the US/Saudi relationship – referring to the Yemen and to Khashoggi – with an increase in votes to block arms deals with Saudi Arabia since similar resolutions in 2016 and 2017. There is also a move to limit the use by a president of the “emergency” provision to sell arms (Trump’s expected veto is based on his declaration of an emergency over Iran).

In the UK the Campaign against Arms Trade (CAAT) had accused the government of licensing arms sales despite a risk that their use could breach international humanitarian law. The Court of Appeal overturned a 2017 decision by the High Court dismissing the CAAT case, and ruled that the UK failed to carry out the full extent of its legal obligations in the granting of licences (full details of the judgement at link – click on “press summary”).

The judgement was based on one narrow point, that the government had failed to meet the requirement that it “shall … deny an export licence if there is a clear risk that the … equipment might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law”. The court did not express any view on the merits of the arm sales, and the judgement does not mean that existing licences must be suspended.

The international trade secretary Liam Fox said the government would not grant new licences while it considered the implications of the judgement, and a spokeswoman for the prime minister Theresa May said the government was disappointed and would seek permission to appeal. Fox defended the government’s position in a short debate in Parliament; it was criticised by a number of MPs including Barry Gardiner, opposition spokesman on international trade, who described the court ruling as a “damning indictment”.

BAE Systems said after the judgement that they continued to support the UK government in implementing its agreements with Saudi Arabia and would await the government’s reconsideration of its decision-making, meanwhile adding that it complied with all relevant export control laws. The US assistant secretary of state for political military affairs Clarke Cooper said the US and Britain had long-standing ties to Saudi Arabia; “They are carrying a significant amount of equity to protect U.S. interests and U.S. persons, and it is incumbent upon us to stand shoulder to shoulder with our partners, especially when they are on the front line for our interests.”

Thus both in Washington and in London there is growing public and political pressure to change tack, given the tragedies of Yemen and Khashoggi. But for the foreseeable future – not perhaps long in either capital – government is determined to resist.

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