Campaign Against Arms Trade has made weapons sales “embarrassing” for Western governments
Yemen’s devastating war is entering its ninth year soon, leading to untold civilian suffering. The war is largely perpetuated by Saudi Arabia’s military offensive relying on arms supplied by the UK and the US. For this conflict – and many others – to end, states must stop selling weapons, said Sam Perlo-Freeman, Research Coordinator for 2012 Laureate organisation Campaign Against Arms Trade, also known as CAAT.
CAAT was founded in 1974 in wake of the Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, which caused widespread concern about the flow of arms to the Middle East. Originally acting as a coalition of UK-based peace organisations, CAAT now operates as a small non-hierarchal and collectively managed organisation.
CAAT received the Right Livelihood Award in 2012 “for their innovative and effective campaigning against the global trade in arms.” Ten years later, CAAT’s campaigning has continued to grow stronger. The organisation has even won a court case against the UK government deeming its export of arms to Saudi Arabia illegal, leading to a year-long ban on new arms licenses to the authoritarian regime.
In a conversation with Sam Perlo-Freeman, CAAT’s Research Coordinator, he shared the organisation’s multi-faceted approach to thwarting the international arms trade.
“We don’t have a mind to ministers really,” said Perlo-Freeman “We pursue the track of public protests, media attention, and public opinion forming. We also try to pursue the track of having issues raised at the policy level in Parliament and with the government.”
The organisation is especially focused on the UK’s intentionally vague and therefore unlawful arms export control criteria.
“It’s designed to look very good on paper, very vigorous,” said Perlo-Freeman. “But, it’s more like a net with big wide holes in it so that anything can get through that the government really wants to get through.”
These “big wide holes” have deadly consequences far beyond the UK’s borders. The clearest example, and CAAT’s current focus, is the war raging in Yemen.
The war began in 2014 when the Houthi rebel movement took over the country’s capital and much of its northern territory. Things escalated greatly in March 2015 when a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia intervened on the side of the internationally recognised government and began a campaign of massive air strikes.
“Of the air strikes, most of which are carried out by Saudi Arabia themselves, at least a third of them have hit civilian targets,” said Perlo-Freeman. “They’ve bombed entire cities, residential areas, they’ve bombed funerals, marketplaces, weddings, civilian vehicles, hospitals, schools and mosques with devastating civilian casualties.”
Around half of these casualties can be directly traced to the UK, explained Perlo-Freeman. The UK supplies about half of the Saudi government’s strike force, with the other half coming from the United States.
Experts have unequivocally stated that the war in Yemen would come to a halt without UK and US support, said Perlo-Freeman.
To make this a reality, CAAT has taken out a second judicial review against the UK government arguing that its arms exports to Saudi Arabia show a clear pattern of human rights violations and therefore pose a risk for future violations. The next hearing for the case will be in late January 2023.
CAAT has long worked with the Yemeni human rights group Mwatana for Human Rights. “They have often reassured us and said how important our work is,” said Perlo-Freeman. “The fact that there is this pressure, whether or not it stops the arms sales, does have an effect on the ground. The court case, the ruling, and the international focus, it has made it embarrassing for Western governments. It’s made it embarrassing for Saudi Arabia.”
For CAAT, intangible outcomes are often just as important as tangible ones. The organisation recognises that shifts in people’s attitudes towards the arms trade can lead to policy changes in the long term.
“There’s a strong sense in society that Britain is a strong military power…and that the UK military is a force for good in the world,” said Perlo-Freeman. “We need to push for a move away from that militaristic understanding of security towards something based on human security, on shared cooperative security.”