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London, United Kingdom – Campaigners hailed an “historic” ruling by the United Kingdom‘s court of appeal declaring British arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in its war against Yemen unlawful as a potential turning point in the conflict.

The decision in London on Thursday follows a challenge by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) that accused the UK government of licensing arms sales despite a clear risk their use could breach international humanitarian law.

Although it will not halt the Saudi-led war in Yemen – in which an estimated 100,000 people have died since 2016 – it adds enormous support to international efforts to end the conflict.

“This ruling is huge,” said Sam Perlo-Freeman, a research coordinator at CAAT.

“We can see that arms sales for use in Yemen are now being challenged internationally – in the US and Europe – but this from a court in one of Saudi Arabia’s top two arms suppliers takes that to a whole new level.

“It is historic in terms of the government’s approach to export licences being found to be illegal and adds huge momentum to the campaign both in this country and internationally for a halt to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition.”

Since the Saudi-led coalition began its military intervention in Yemen in 2015, the UK has licensed at least 4.6 billion pounds ($6bn) worth of arms to Saudi forces. Weapons and military support from Britain to Saudi Arabia – that now accounts for 43 percent of London’s arms exports – is crucial to the war effort.

However, public disquiet has grown about Britain’s role with a poll commissioned by CAAT indicating only six percent of people in the country support arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

CAAT’s Andrew Smith talks to Al Jazeera following the court’s ruling

The UK’s sales have significantly bolstered the Saudi air force’s capability to carry out air attacks in Yemen. The final six Typhoon jet fighters of 72 ordered in 2007 were delivered in 2017. The following year, Riyadh signed a memorandum of intent to buy an additional 48 Typhoons

CAAT has been arguing for three years that the sales break UK laws, which block export licences if there is a clear risk of weapons being used in “serious violations” of international humanitarian law.

Perlo-Freeman added: “We welcome this verdict but at the same time really think it should not have taken a three-and-a-half-year court procedure to get the UK government to even start considering doing the right thing.

“The British government’s whole priority in promoting arms exports over everything else and in choosing to support and enable the Saudi-led war on Yemen – which is causing the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world – is fundamentally wrong.”

Can ruling end the war?

The UK government must now change the way it assesses the risk of breaches of international humanitarian law before approving exports. Prime Minister Theresa May has already said the government will appeal against the ruling.

The court’s decision also does not mean that licences to export arms to Saudi Arabia must immediately be suspended, and it will not affect existing stocks of weapons held by the country or ground support and maintenance provided to the Saudi air force by BAE Systems personnel.

“We are now calling for an immediate end to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia and that the UK simply should not be supporting the Saudi-led war in Yemen at all,” Perlo-Freeman said.

Anna Stavrianakis is a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex and an expert on the arms trade. “This legal decision finally provides some accountability for the UK’s role in the war in Yemen and the humanitarian disaster it has caused,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Not only has the government spent four years providing diplomatic cover for the Saudi-led coalition’s abuses committed with UK- and US-supplied weapons, it has also expended significant amounts of energy in trying not to know, or be seen to know, about possible violations of international humanitarian law.

“At long last, the government has been held accountable for its reckless policy.”

The London-based Stop the War Coalition welcomed the court of appeal’s decision. Spokesperson Lindsey German said it should result in a complete change of British policy and end any logistical or political support for the war.

“We are delighted at the ruling but it should never have come to court,” German told Al Jazeera. “Our government has repeatedly been prepared to sell arms to the Saudis, one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

“This should stop immediately, and the British government should apologise to all those who have suffered as a result of its policy.” 

But the UK government has significant interests at stake and “will do as much as it can to carry on supporting the war”, added German.

“Most people in Britain are opposed to the killing of civilians and to the Yemen war. We must continue to build protests and organise against it, making clear to whoever becomes prime minister that this barbarism has to end.”

Humanitarian crisis

The humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Yemen has been described as the world’s worst and has put nearly 10 million people at risk of starvation.

Human rights groups have long dismissed British government arguments – that its approach was lawful, that it operated “robust” export controls, that its military advisers working with Saudi forces had not been directing air raids, and the Saudi-led intervention was endorsed by the United Nations.

Earlier this year British ministers provided an additional 200 million pounds ($250m) to Yemen to help feed 3.8 million people, bringing total UK humanitarian support to the war-torn country to 770 million pounds ($980m).

Aid organisations such as Oxfam have said this “incoherent policy means that what it gives with one hand, it takes away with another”, while other groups claim the UK is ignoring alleged Saudi war crimes.

Mark Kaye of the Save the Children charity, which works in Yemen to alleviate poor humanitarian conditions, said: “The ruling essentially is what we have been pushing the UK government to acknowledge for the last three to four years of this conflict – that continuously fuelling this conflict by selling weapons to the Saudi-led coalition is both morally and legally wrong.

“We are pushing the UK government to accept that this new legal advice means it needs to reevaluate its engagement with the Saudis, it needs to cancel all of the arms exports that it currently has, and do a proper review of its processes and policies to make sure that there are no British-made bombs resulting in the deaths of innocent people in Yemen.”

Kaye added the poor humanitarian conditions in Yemen – from a cholera outbreak to mass displacement by flooding and the destruction of hospitals in Saudi air raids – are as bad as ever.

“We are seeing very little tangible improvement on the ground – in fact, if anything, we are seeing things getting worse.”

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