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September 10, 2019

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP
Secretary of State for International Trade
Department of International Trade
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH
United Kingdom

Re: UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Dear Secretary of State,

I am writing to you as acting UK director at Human Rights Watch, an independent international organization that investigates and documents human rights abuses and laws of war violations in more than 90 countries around the world.

As you are aware, on 20 June 2019 the Court of Appeal of England and Wales ruled that your predecessor needed to re-take decisions on granting export licenses for the sale or transfer of arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia, on the correct legal basis, taking into account the past record of the coalition in respecting the laws of war in the conflict in Yemen. Your predecessor undertook to the court not to grant any new licenses for the export of arms or military equipment in Saudi Arabia for possible use in Yemen until the government had re-taken those decisions. In its judgment, the court had stressed the importance of evidence of human rights abuses and laws of war violations published by groups including Human Rights Watch.

In light of the ruling, I am writing to present you with Human Rights Watch’s published work on coalition violations of the laws of war in Yemen to date. The violations include reckless or indiscriminate attacks on civilians; reckless or indiscriminate attacks on civilian objects; the use of indiscriminate weapons including cluster munitions in or near populated areas; and the failure of both the coalition and member states adequately to investigate and hold responsible parties accountable. Our research includes documenting incidents where UK-manufactured munitions were found at the sites of apparent unlawful attacks. These represent incidents Human Rights Watch was able to investigate based on our ability to gather evidence and safely communicate with witnesses, and in some cases, to access the sites in question. These do not represent every major incident of laws of war violations by the coalition; other organizations or the United Nations may have documented other incidents.

Since the coalition began its aerial campaign in Yemen in 2015, the UK has licensed at least £4.7 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. I would like to draw your particular attention to the use of UK-made weapons in three apparently unlawful coalition attacks in Yemen that Human Rights Watch has investigated.

Attack on Radfan Ceramics Factory on 23 September 2015. Human Rights Watch identified the munition used as a UK-manufactured PGM-500 “Hakim” air-launched cruise missile. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that no fighters or military vehicles were in or near the factory at the time of the attack. The Radfan Ceramics Factory employed about 330 workers and had stopped production prior to the attack due to security fears for the workers and a shortage of fuel to operate the machinery. The attack on the factory in the Sanaa governorate was in apparent violation of the laws of war, since it appeared to be producing only civilian goods.

Attack on the Sanaa Chamber of Commerce on 5 January 2016. Human Rights Watch identified the munition likely used in the attack as a Mk-82 500-lb bomb with a UK-manufactured Paveway laser guidance kit. The attack on the Chamber of Commerce building was unlawful unless the compound was being used for military purposes. Human Rights Watch examined the site on March 24, 2016. Researchers found no evidence of military activity at the site. Before the airstrike, the office employed 52 workers. Khalid Ali al- ‘Olafi, acting head of the Chamber of Commerce, told Human Rights Watch that three large meeting rooms, the Chamber of Commerce’s records archive, and the legal and communications departments were completely destroyed in the strike. After the bombing, the Chamber of Commerce stopped using the building, which remained filled with debris at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit.

Attack on warehouses in Hodeida on 6 January 2016. Human Rights Watch identified the munition used in the attack as a UK-manufactured Paveway IV guided bomb, produced in May 2015. The first strike hit a hangar containing food products including rice, sugar, canned tuna, and canned tomato paste. Human Rights Watch found rice and remnants of cans strewn across the warehouse floor. The second strike hit a warehouse containing car parts. The attack on the warehouses appeared to be unlawful. Human Rights Watch found no evidence the facility was being used for military purposes, including to store weapons or material.

Despite the numerous credible reports of serious laws-of-war violations, the Saudi-led coalition has taken no evident actions either to minimize harm to civilians in its air operations or effectively to investigate past incidents and hold those responsible to account. To date, the coalition has released no information indicating that even one coalition officer has been held to account for laws of war violations in Yemen.

I am appending a full compilation of the publications which Human Rights Watch has issued on coalition violations in Yemen. The evidence we have compiled shows there is currently a clear risk that arms exported to Saudi Arabia would be used in serious violations of international humanitarian law. I am also attaching an in-depth analysis of the Joint Investigations Assessment Team, the coalition’s investigative body, which explains why its conclusions should not be used to assess the coalition’s record of abuses.

Given the UK’s own export license rules, you should suspend licenses for arms exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners until there is clear evidence proving that the coalition has both curbed its abuses in Yemen, and has taken serious measures to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for past violations. It is Human Rights Watch’s assessment, based on years of investigation and monitoring, that these conditions have not been met.

I would be grateful if you could respond within the next 28 days to confirm that your department will take this evidence into consideration when conducting the review.

Yours sincerely,                             

Benjamin Ward
UK Director (Acting)
Human Rights Watch

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