A man walks in front of buildings destroyed by airstrikes in Dhamar province, Yemen, on Sept. 4, 2019. Photo Wang Wei Xinhua News Agency PA Images
Department for International Trade permanent secretary Antonia Romeo had launched an investigation after the department approved the sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, despite a pledge not to allow the export of goods that could be used in the civil war in Yemen
International trade secretary Liz Truss revealed the breach of DIT's undertaking in a letter to the House of Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls.
The UK suspended arms sales to Riyadh earlier this year after the Court of Appeal ruled that ministers had failed to assess whether the weapons could be used against civilians in the long-running Yemeni war.
In a letter to MPs, Truss said she had informed the court of "two inadvertent breaches" of a vow by her predecessor Liam Fox not to "grant any new licences for the export of arms or military equipment to Saudi Arabia for possible use in the conflict in Yemen". These included a license for £435,450-worth of radio parts that was issued for use by Saudi land forces in July, while a licence for a £200 air cooling system for a land force vehicle had also been authorised by her department.
“I have apologised to the court unreservedly for the error in granting these two licences," Truss told the committee.
Romeo has launched a full investigation to establish the precise circumstances in which these licences were granted and whether any others had been awarded. The probe will also examine the procedures in place to prevent further mistakes.
Truss said: “During the course of this investigation, all decisions made on licences for the export of military goods to [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] and its coalition partners will be subject to additional compliance processes to ensure that no further licences are issued in error for possible use in the conflict in Yemen.”
Shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner said Truss must “provide a full account of why her department failed so miserably”, adding that if she cannot control her department, she should resign.
He added: “The department has failed to conduct proper assessments and essential information is not being relayed between government departments."
"The people of the United Kingdom do not want to be complicit in fuelling the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the secretary of state must immediately suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of people have been killed in this war and it is staggering that the trade secretary thinks an apology will get her off the hook.”
The United Nations estimates that the conflict in Yemen – which pits its Saudi-backed government against Houthi rebels – has cost more than 7,000 civilian lives and left 80% of its population in need of humanitarian assistance or protection.
Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which brought the original court case against the government, said the breaches undermined the government's claims that it has "rigorous and robust" arms export controls.
“The reality is that, no matter how appalling the crisis in Yemen has become, the government has always been far more concerned with arms company profits than it has with the rights and lives of Yemeni people," he added.