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Is Britain complicit in alleged Saudi war crimes? A court rules ‘no,’ but won’t explain.

A Saudi F-15 fighter jet lands at the Khamis Mushayt military air base in 2015 as the Saudi army conducts operations over Yemen. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)

LONDON — Campaigners opposed to British arms sales to Saudi Arabia suffered a major defeat Monday, as London's high court ruled that the controversial exports that include precision guided munition and fighter jets could continue.

Opponents of the trade relationship argue that British arms have been used by Saudi forces bombing targets in Yemen, making Britain complicit in alleged war crimes and the indiscriminate killing of thousands of civilians. At least 10,000 civilians had died in the conflict by the beginning of the year, the United Nations has said.

For almost three years, the Saudi-led coalition has been seeking to dislodge the Shiite-led Houthi rebels from areas they control in Yemen, mainly relying on aerial bombings. The civil war in the country has destroyed Yemen's economy and infrastructure network, and forced more than 7 million people to rely on scarce humanitarian aid for survival.

Saudi Arabia is Britain's top arms client and such sales would be illegal under British and European Union law if there were a clear risk of them contributing to violations of international humanitarian law. Despite calls to investigate possible human rights violations by Hammond, the British government later rejected claims of that being the case.

London's high court followed the government's assessment in its ruling Monday after being presented with confidential documents, including battle-damage assessments and intelligence reports, in hearings which took mostly place in secret. The evidence has not been revealed to the public. While the court decision will pave the way for continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia, it may do little to diminish the resistance to such sales by groups like the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which initiated the legal case.

Arms sales opponents have raised concerns over the secrecy of the process, especially following a recent decision by the British government to keep secret a Home Office inquiry into foreign support and funding for terror groups, which was reportedly critical of Saudi Arabia. Opponents have accused the British government of deliberately protecting Saudi Arabia despite alleged human rights violations, to further the nation's business interests.

Monday's court ruling comes as Western arms exports to Saudi Arabia, including U.S. weapons sales, are under mounting scrutiny. The United States exported most arms to Saudi Arabia last year, followed by Britain and France, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Major arms exporter Germany, however, has sold far fewer weapons to the nation, and Saudi Arabia recently announced it would stop buying German arms entirely after the country cited human rights concerns.

The strategy change has come after Saudi intelligence findings that Iran allegedly funds, trains and arms the Houthi rebels as part of a proxy war against the Sunni monarchies that make up the bulk of the Saudi-led coalition. Speaking to The Washington Post in March on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, a senior U.S. official echoed such findings to justify arms sales: “We’ll be looking for ways to blunt Iranian malign influence in the region. … In that context, I think you have to look at Yemen,” the official said.

Britain's support for continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia is believed to be less strategic but is mainly seen as an attempt to secure tens of thousands of British jobs that depend on the exports.

“The shameless arms supplies to Saudi Arabia … may amount to lucrative trade deals, but the U.K. risks aiding and abetting these terrible crimes,” James Lynch, the head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, said Monday.

“This is a deeply disappointing outcome which gives a green light to the U.K. authorities — and potentially Saudi Arabia’s other arms suppliers — to continue authorizing arms transfers to the Kingdom despite the clear risk they will be used to commit violations,” said Lynch.

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