The UK government ignored warnings about human rights concerns over selling arms to Saudi Arabia from one of its own advisers, even though it was told there were "gaps in knowledge" over the kingdom's military operations.
At a landmark judicial review at the High Court, documents revealed on Tuesday that a senior civil servant at the Export Controls Organisation (ECO) had expressed doubts about selling arms to the kingdom amid fears that the arms could be used to kill civilians in Yemen.
In a classified and heavily redacted email titled "Urgent – further advice on Saudi Arabia" shown in court, it was revealed Sajid Javid, the then business secretary, had been made aware of concerns expressed by Edward Bell, head of the ECO.
In the email, sent in February last year, Bell wrote to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills: "We briefed the Secretary of State at his Commons' office last night. He clearly recognises the graveness of the issues."
Bell added: "There is a lot at stake here politically but if you accept that the threshold for 'clear risk' of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law has not been breached then it is possible to take wider factors – such as diplomatic and economic relations – into account. If you do not accept this then it's not permissible to do so."
Bell concluded: "To be honest – and I was very direct and honest with the SoS [secretary of state] – my gut tells me we should suspend," referring to arms deals with Saudi Arabia, to which the UK has sold more than £3.3 billion worth of arms since the kingdom's intervention into Yemen’s civil war in 2015.
Bell said he had told Javid "directly" that suspension of the deals would be "prudent and cautious" given the "acknowledged gaps in knowledge about Saudi operations".
Last month the United Nations said the civilian death toll from the two-year conflict had passed 10,000. More than 40,000 people have been wounded, and an estimated 10 million have been displaced. Save the Children, which works extensively in Yemen, said in a statement this morning that the British government “knows one of its allies has blood on its hands”
The case currently being heard in the High Court, brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), alleges weapons being sold by the British government to Saudi Arabia are being used in human rights violations in Yemen.
Ahead of the three-day hearing, Andrew Smith, spokesperson for CAAT, said: “For two years now, the UK has been complicit in the destruction which has been forced onto the people of Yemen.”
“This has been facilitated by UK arms and UK political support,” he told BuzzFeed News. “This isn’t just immoral, it’s also illegal, and the reason why we’re in court this week is to try and put an end to that and put an end to the UK’s complicity in the destruction of Yemen.”
Legal advisers for human rights organisations who were at court argued the government had avoided deciding on Saudi Arabia's international human rights violations.
A government spokesperson said in a statement to BuzzFeed News: “The UK is playing a leading role in work to find a political solution to the conflict in Yemen and to address the humanitarian crisis.
“We operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and keep our defence exports to Saudi Arabia under careful and continual review. Given the current legal proceedings we will not be commenting further outside of court at this stage.”
Aisha Gani is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Aisha Gani at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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