1218 GMT March 23, 2019
The German weekly Der Spiegel reported Wednesday that British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt sent a blistering letter to his counterpart in Berlin earlier this month, warning that Germany’s credibility as a partner is at stake over its restrictions on arms exports to the Persian Gulf nation, AP reported.
Germany rescinded existing arms export permits to Saudi Arabia last year in response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The move, which amounts to an export ban, means Britain can’t ship war planes such as the Typhoon to Saudi Arabia because they contain German-made components.
The UK has fiercely criticized the killing of Khashoggi, but has refused to ban arms sales. A Lords committee at the weekend said it believed the UK was narrowly on the wrong side of humanitarian law by selling arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the civil war in Yemen.
Asked about the letter ahead of a meeting Wednesday with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Hunt said both Britain and Germany have a common interest in ending the war in Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor Yemen, where a major humanitarian crisis has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. A Saudi-led coalition has launched a war on Yemen since 2015, leading to criticism of arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Hunt insisted that Britain has strict rules on arms exports that include “independent assessment of whether our arms exports are likely to be used in breaches of international humanitarian law.”
“At the moment we don’t make that judgment,” he said. “But when I talk to Heiko Maas what I say is that strategic relationship that the UK has with Saudi Arabia is what allows us to have a huge influence in bringing about peace in Yemen.”
A spokeswoman for Germany’s Economy Ministry, Tanja Alemany, told reporters on Wednesday that Berlin’s position on arms exports to Saudi Arabia hasn’t changed and “there’s currently no basis for further permits.”
The prime minister has faced down calls for a ban – on sales worth a staggering £4.7bn since the brutal war in Yemen began in 2015 – despite the growing humanitarian disaster.
An estimated 85,000 children under the age of five have died from extreme hunger or disease in a war between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi fighters. Up to 14 million people are at risk of famine.
Independent experts have highlighted “extraordinary rates of civilian deaths by airstrikes” carried out by the Saudi coalition, with about 166 people dying every month last autumn.
Now the House of Lords International Relations Committee says the prime minister must rein in arms sales to Riyadh “as a matter of urgency” – describing the situation in the country as “unconscionable”.
“We do not agree with the government’s assertion that it is narrowly on the right side of international humanitarian law in the case of licensing arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition,” said Lord Howell, its Conservative chairman.