European Union (EU) member states have committed themselves to a set of rules, agreed both at the regional and international level, which are meant to prevent and address the diverse effects of unregulated or poorly regulated arms trade on conflict, regional security and stability and, ultimately, human suffering. These standards are grounded in—among other things—the application of international humanitarian law (IHL).
However, there have always been differences in the way EU member states have interpreted these rules, depending on their national laws, decision-making processes and political and economic interests. These differences have become particularly evident in the escalation of the conflict in Yemen.
While some EU states have halted or restricted exports of military equipment to the Saudi Arabian-led coalition actively engaged in the conflict—due to IHL and concerns over human rights—others have continued with supplies.
In Italy and the United Kingdom, parliamentarians have responded by tabling motions and publishing reports aimed at pressuring their governments to change or reassess their decision-making processes. In addition, civil society organizations in several EU member states—including Italy and the UK—have responded by questioning the legality of these exports vis-à-vis agreed regional and international standards, and by challenging them in court.
On 20 June 2019, the verdict of the Court of Appeal in London accepted part of the instances put forward by the Coalition Against Arms Trade (CAAT) against the British Government.
This judgement, in particular, questioned the lawfulness of the process adopted by the government to assess the risk that the exported weapons and military equipment to Saudi Arabia may have been used to commit serious violations of IHL in Yemen.
The aim of this backgrounder is to analyse these two cases and assess the potential significance of the actions on the implementation of international and regional standards regulating arms trade.
First, it provides a brief overview of the scope of IHL and how related concerns are embedded in instruments regulating arms transfers, such as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and the EU Common Position on arms exports. It then looks at how EU member states have interpreted these provisions differently when assessing transfers to members of the coalition involved in the Yemen conflict—in particular, Saudi Arabia—and the implications of these divergences in policy.
Finally, it looks closely at on what grounds the arms exports of two of the EU member states that have decided to keep supplying Saudi Arabia—the UK and Italy—are being legally challenged, and the potential impact of these actions.
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