LONDON (Middle East Eye) – The UK Department of International Trade (DIT) has been accused of using “delaying tactics” after twice telling Middle East Eye it needs more time to decide whether releasing information about British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia is in the public interest.
Campaigners argue that the information should be released because members of the public should know how government decisions to sell arms to the Persian Gulf kingdom at the height of its war in Yemen were made.
Middle East Eye filed a freedom of information request in July seeking correspondence between the department and ministers about arms exports to Saudi Arabia between 1 and 15 October 2016, at a time when the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct of the war was under scrutiny over a deadly air strike on a crowded funeral hall in Sana’a.
More than 140 people died and over 500 were injured in the bombing on 8 October 2016, an attack that UN monitors found had violated international humanitarian law.
Sam Perlo-Freeman, a research coordinator with the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade, which works towards the abolition of the international arms trade and has challenged UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the high court, said the department appears to be using “classic delaying tactics.”
“The UK continued to approve arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia in the wake of some of the most horrific Saudi coalition attacks on Yemeni civilians,” Perlo-Freeman said.
“It is important for the public to know – what concerns, if any, were raised by civil servants about these licenses? How did ministers, including [then-Foreign Secretary] Boris Johnson, respond to these concerns? Did these atrocities make any difference to their thinking?” he added.
The DIT’s rejection for being responsive came after the UK-based Open Democracy media platform revealed that DIT was “the second most prolific” government department to use the “public interest loophole” in 2021.
Anna Stavrianakis, a professor in international relations at the University of Sussex, who was the requester of information from FOI and others, has said that obtaining the data is important in order to hold the UK accountable for its potential complicity in war crimes in Yemen.
Former Foreign Secretary Liz Truss faced a grilling by parliamentarians at a foreign affairs committee hearing in June, when she dodged a volley of questions from parliamentarians on the UK government’s ambiguous stance on Saudi Arabia, saying that the Arab kingdom is an “important partner of the United Kingdom.”
Asked about the Saudis’ human rights record by Labour MP Chris Bryant, Truss stressed that “it is important to build a close trading relationship with the Persian Gulf states.”