I helped fight legal action against the government’s export of arms to Saudi Arabia. What I know now makes me ashamed

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The UK government makes billions of pounds from arms sales to countries with repressive, murderous, regimes, like Saudi Arabia, while also claiming to operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. That hasn’t saved it from legal action brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which argued that notwithstanding that frequently claimed robustness, the government’s export of arms to Saudi Arabia is illegal. I remember that legal action well, because I was the Foreign Office lawyer responsible for fighting it.


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The law in this area is not complicated.  Anyone British, or in Britain, needs a licence to export arms. Some arms are unlicensable here, such is our collective disgust at the harm they cause – cluster munitions, for example, or equipment used in the execution of human beings. For everything else, applying for a licence is straightforward – a simple form, then a decision from the Department for International Trade. That decision should be made in compliance with the law, which, of most relevance to exports to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, says that a licence must not be granted where there is a “clear risk” they might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law – “IHL”.

IHL is the framework within which those at war must conduct themselves. It includes rules to protect civilians. You can have war, the law accepts; you can drop bombs on legitimate military targets – a factory producing munitions, for example, or the headquarters of the opposing military, but you can’t aim for civilians, be they on a school bus, in a clinic, or at a funeral; and you must take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties. Those precautions might be things like ensuring you use the most precise weapon available, or if your military target is beside a school, you drop your bombs at night when the children are at home.

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