The UK and Saudi Arabia: Human Rights and the Perils of Petrodollar Morality – Part II

by | May 11, 2016

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About Shreeppriya Gopalakrishnan

Shreeppriya Gopalakrishnan graduated from the University of Oxford with a Master’s in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Having formerly worked with Google, she now works as an independent journalist, writing primarily about digital hierarchies and British politics.


Shreeppriya Gopalakrishnan “The UK and Saudi Arabia: Human Rights and the Perils of Petrodollar Morality – Part II” (OxHRH Blog, 11 May 2016) <> [Date of Access]

In Part I, we looked at how the UK’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia underpins its half-hearted approach to the kingdom’s dismal human rights record. The cornerstone of this relationship is the extremely lucrative arms trade, the sheer scale of which leaves us with lingering questions about where these acquisitions may be used, and to what end. 

In Part II, these questions steer us towards the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen Civil War: a spectacle of destruction relegated to peripheral status in the public eye. As early as July 2015, the UN termed the situation in Yemen a “humanitarian catastrophe” with thousands of civilians killed, 80% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance and more than 20 million without access to even safe water. It later reported that 73% of child casualties had died as a result of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, which also disproportionately shelled populated areas and destroyed vital civilian infrastructure including hospitals and schools. In early 2016, a leaked UN report accused the coalition of “widespread and systematic” targeting of civilians with airstrikes, and deliberately starving the population as a war tactic.

British involvement in this war goes beyond the sale of arms. Saudi Arabia revealed that British military advisors were present in the control room for airstrikes, and had access to target lists (though no role in choosing them). The UK Ministry of Defence admitted as much, claiming that their presence was not “operational”; their role was to provide “best practice targeting techniques” and “ensure compliance with the International Humanitarian Law (IHL)”. Saudi Arabia has used the access provided to British and other “allied” forces as proof of transparency and non-violation of IHL.

The British government, however, has been unwilling to shoulder that responsibility. An inquiry by the Committees on Arms Export Controls noted that the government has “not asserted that there are no violations”, yet “not accepted that there are violations”. According to evidence presented by eminent lawyer Philippe Sands, its stance has gone from complete reliance on Saudi assurances, to making compliance (and the occurrence of war crimes) the sole prerogative of international judicial bodies, to conceding the “need to work with the Saudis to establish that IHL has been complied with.”

This is a curious fix. Considering the futility of self-certification by the Saudis, the unwillingness of the British government to ascertain the ground reality on its own, and the possibility of an independent international inquiry having been thwarted at the UNHRC due to objections from Saudi Arabia (where it has come to play a dominant role thanks to the fillip provided by the UK), what will it take for the UK to finally acknowledge widespread violations of IHL, and the role of its own forces in these incidents?

This is an important question, especially in the light of the British government’s oft-repeated commitment to suspending arms sales if there is a “clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL”. By corollary, this reflects on its determination to continue selling arms until such violations are proven. As of 27th April, the UK government continues to assert  that “extant [arms] licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the [IHL] criteria”, in spite of sharp criticism from the EU (including the imposition of an arms embargo), distraught appeals by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and legal action mounted by human rights groups.

An inquiry report by the International Development Committee has called the government’s denials “deeply disappointing” in the face of “credible evidence of violations of IHL”. Witnesses have noted that evidence considered legitimate by the UK government in other contexts – Syria, Libya and Sudan – is being rejected in Yemen in favour of assurances by the Saudis, who happen to be belligerents in the conflict.

The time for platitudes is past. As Yemen agonises in the throes of another fragile ceasefire, it is high time the British government reflected on the lofty ideals enshrined in its own human rights reports. Profit and diplomacy might be legitimate concerns, but far too many lives have been sacrificed at the altar of petrodollar morality.

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