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How did the High Court decide that weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

Despite the ruling on Monday, many questions remain.

Earlier this week, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) failed in its attempt to stop the UK government selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. The group had argued that selling arms to the country, which has been implicated in civilian deaths as a result of its involvement in Yemen's civil war, breached the government's own rules that it should not engage in weapons sales where there is “a clear risk that the arms might be used in the commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law”.
The judgement is complex. For the government to suspend arms sales, a “clear risk” threshold must be met. The judgement accepts that the government was “rationally entitled to conclude” that such a threshold had not been reached. When asked for comment, the Department for International Trade referred to Liam Fox's statement on Monday, which argues the judgement was a vindication of the “rigour” and “anxious scrutiny” of the government's assessment processes.

A government spokesperson said it welcomed the judgement “which underscores the fact that the UK operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world”.

Yet Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International's UK Arms Control Programme Director, points out the ruling did not deal with whether there is actually a clear risk that the arms might be used to commit serious violations of human rights law, only whether the government had followed correct procedure. “A lot of people are misquoting what the judgement was about, and saying things like 'it completely vindicated the government's decision to sell arms to Saudi, it's given the green light to sell to Saudi',” he says.

“I suspect, if the government had not argued in court how difficult this decision was, and how carefully they considered it, and how they are acknowledging that there are clear problems in Yemen, I think the judge may well have reached an entirely different conclusion.”  

Tom Barns, the strategic development director for CAAT, insists the humanitarian situation in Yemen didn't come under sufficiently “anxious scrutiny” by the government.

He says: “The law is very clear. And as far as we can see, when an entire city is declared a military target, as Sa'dah in Yemen was despite its large civilian areas . . . when schools are destroyed, mosques are destroyed, hospitals are destroyed, a funeral is hit with a double-tap air strike killing 140 civilians . . . a common sense interpretation is that there is a very clear risk that [international law] is going to be broken in the future and that arms sales should be suspended.”

Numerous NGOs contributed to CAAT's case, says Barns. “Some gave written evidence, some gave evidence in the court, several of those organisations had commissioned a separate legal opinion which chimed exactly with our argument.”

Similarly, the UN has condemned the “grave breach of international law”, and the European parliament voted to end the arms sales. Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children have come to similar views independently.  As has every opposition party in the UK. Barns is not exaggerating when he calls it a “real across the board understanding”.

Putting together possible reasons for the judgement, Sprague suggests that the ruling “erred on the side of accepting the government's narrative” in its dismissal of the reliability of NGO reports, and the panel of UN experts: “The very experts in international law and weapons that the UK (as a member of the security council) was responsible for authorising . . . for the UK to come out in court and say 'we don't think this is a very reliable exercise' is quite extraordinary. And I think you would find that they'd be pretty angry at the way their research has been characterised as kind of sloppy.

“It's essentially saying that the only way you can ascertain what's really going on, is to ask the Saudis themselves. The way that I think the ruling has deferred to that analysis is quite startling.”

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox's response to MPs on Tuesday shows how quickly the government is prepared to delegitimise the views from NGOs on this issue. When questioned on the reports from MSF about repeated Saudi bombing of Yemeni hospitals, Fox accused SNP MP Alison Thewliss of making “uninformed points for propaganda purposes”.

For Barns, the legitimacy and impartiality of NGO reports can be contrasted with the vested interests he says influence the government's evidence. There are two related issues, he says. Firstly, “the same department tasked with getting their evidence together is the department that is pushing and promoting these sales in the first place”. Since the conflict began in 2015, the UK's sale of weapons to the Saudi regime has accelerated, and now stands at £3.3bn.

Secondly, the government often relied on Saudi intelligence, which Barns says amounts to the dubious policy of “trusting the Saudis to investigate themselves for war crimes”.

This ruling is not the end of CAAT's fight. Barns says they are immediately appealing, on the advice of their lawyers who “do not take such decisions lightly . . . they argue that there are still things about our case that haven't been addressed properly in this judgement”.

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.