We’re not the good guys if we keep selling arms to Saudi Arabia

As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, I have to observe a lot of doublespeak, wilful ignorance, selective memory and sometimes outright hypocrisy, all in the name of Realpolitik or Statecraft. But sometimes we do need to sup wi’ a lang spoon and I’m no boy scout. Few things are black and white.

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First published in The National, 18 October 2015

But if we forget, compromise or undermine our own principles then we can’t claim to be the good guys. I wonder what else the UK needs in order to understand that its arms trade policy with Saudi Arabia needs to change now, immediately?

UK arms sales to Saudi and their use in Yemen are a blot on such conscience as the UK Government now has. If yesterday’s leaked UN assessment is not enough to feel ashamed of our state’s policy, what more do we need? I have met leading human rights NGOs who, covering the impact of the war from Yemen itself, have documented incredibly serious violations of international humanitarian law by our allies, Saudi Arabia being the big player in the international coalition in Yemen.

I grew up in Saudi myself and I know that many Saudis are profoundly worried at the extent of the destruction that the Saudi armed forces have brought about in Yemen since the start of the war in March 2015. But they have little means of expressing themselves in an absolute monarchy, so we have an absolute obligation to speak out.

The Saudi regime, and to a lesser extent that of the UAE, are using what the UK sold them – warplanes, bombs, missiles, rockets and all the active technical assistance attached – in an undeclared war which has seen at least 8,000 Yemenis die, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. The “smart” bombs sold to the Saudis have devastated the lives of Yemenis celebrating at two weddings, taking shelter in a refugee camp, protecting their World Heritage Sites, healing the wounded in hospitals and teaching their children in schools. I see no reason not to suspend our arms policy towards Saudi Arabia, until genuine efforts are spent on abiding by international humanitarian law standards.

I’m proud Angus Robertson and the SNP Group at Westminster have been so to the fore in pushing this in London. I for my part have raised the issue with the EU’s top diplomat, high representative Mogherini, calling for her lawyers to give a view on how legal the UK policy is. I reminded her of the European Parliament’s strong opposition to such irresponsible arms transfers in the past, and sent her the legal opinion produced for human rights NGOs in support of their case for judicial review in the English High Court. I have done so for two reasons. 

First, as long as the UK remains a member of the EU, it has to respect high standards of human rights protection. EU law says that its member states cannot send weapons to countries where there is. I quote from a legally binding EU position that the UK signed up to in 2008: “a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law”. 

Second, while other EU countries like France, Italy, Belgium and Spain are also selling arms to the Saudis, there is a clear interest for everybody to suspend the arms trade for now, and raising this issue at EU level is a way to resonate with those member states and remind them of shared values and standards. I’m glad to see MEP colleagues raising the pressure on their own governments to live up to the laws they signed up to.

Throughout the Arab world the UK is not seen as entirely positive, more the former colonial power responsible for sowing the seeds of so many of the region’s problems. arming dictators, turning a blind eye to the actions of authoritarian regimes, and all in the name of oil and trade. 

We’re not the good guys, but an arms embargo to Saudi will at least stop complicity in shocking abuses.