UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A coalition of human rights groups on Wednesday criticized Britain for weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia, saying arms sales to Riyadh would violate a global treaty regulating trade in munitions.
The British government rejected the criticism, saying it was in full compliance with its treaty obligations.
Control Arms - a cluster of rights groups such as Amnesty International, Oxfam and Transparency International that focuses on arms control - said it sought an expert legal opinion from Philippe Sands, an attorney at the law firm Matrix Chambers and professor at University College in London.
Sands' found that "available evidence and information provides prima facie evidence that the Saudi-led coalition has engaged in attacks directed against the civilian population" in the war in Yemen.
Nearly 6,000 people, almost half of them civilians, have died since Saudi-led air strikes began in March.
A seven-day truce began on Tuesday in Yemen to coincide with the peace talks to try to end a nine-month-old civil war between Iran-backed Houthis based in north Yemen and Saudi-backed southern and eastern fighters loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Sands' legal opinion also found that current and future arms transfers to Saudi Arabia covered by the Arms Trade Treaty would violate the pact, which calls on states not to authorise the sale of a wide range of weapons if there are grounds to suspect they could be deployed against civilians.
The Arms Trade Treaty entered in force a year ago this month. Britain was one of the countries that fought the hardest for its adoption and ultimate entry into force.
"If the British continue to send arms to Saudi Arabia in the current context, they will continue to knowingly violate the same treaty that they helped to champion," Control Arms said.
A British government spokesperson disputed that assessment, saying in a statement that London was "not in breach" of the treaty.
"We operate one of the most rigorous and transparent arms export control regimes in the world with each licence application assessed on a case by case basis, taking account of all relevant information, to ensure compliance with our legal obligations," the statement said.
"We regularly raise with Saudi Arabian-led coalition and the Houthis, the need to comply with international humanitarian law in Yemen," it added. "We monitor the situation carefully."
The Control Arms statement also cited Saudi arms trade with Italy, Germany, France, Belgium and the Czech Republic.
The Control Arms statement foccused exclusively on European nations and did not mention the United States, which is a leading arms supplier to the Saudis but is not a party to the Arms Trade Treaty. It has signed but not ratified it.
Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Tom Brown