Yemen: money over morality
8 Nov 2019|

Weapons and expertise provided by Western countries have enabled some of the world’s richest nations to bring high-level mechanised warfare to Yemen, one of the poorest places on the planet.

In the process, air strikes and artillery bombardments have slaughtered more than 12,000 civilians and exacerbated famine and outbreaks of disease that have killed hundreds of thousands more. It’s time for governments that are approving the flow of arms and ammunition to the Saudi Arabian–led coalition fighting in Yemen to accept their share of responsibility for the carnage and to turn off the tap.

The coalition currently comprises Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan. Qatar was involved until 2017 and Morocco until 2019. The UAE has partially withdrawn from Yemen, though it’s still backing separatist movements there.

Beginning in 2015 with a failed political transition after an Arab Spring uprising, the conflict has left Yemen a fractured country with little prospect of stable government. In September 2014, the Houthi Shia Muslim group, loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, took advantage of political disarray to take control of the capital and install its own government. President Adbradduh Mansour Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-led coalition, backed by the US, France and Britain, entered the conflict in March 2015 in response to fears that Iran, the Houthis’ biggest supporter and regional rival of Saudi Arabia, would gain a foothold in Yemen. Since then, Yemen has been wracked by civil war, food insecurity, and rising poverty levels.

The United Nations has warned that the death toll could reach 233,000 by the end of 2019 as a direct result of conflict and second-order consequences. Almost 80% of Yemen’s 28.7 million people need humanitarian assistance and the country is suffering through the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Yet, the US, France, Britain and Australia, among other nations, continue to sell arms to the Saudi-led coalition.

The governments of Australia (see pages 39–47), France and the US emphasise that the processes involved in assessing foreign military sales are compliant with international obligations. However, a leaked document from the French Directorate of Military Intelligence shows that Western munitions have been regularly used in strikes targeting civilians. The coalition has launched more than 19,000 air raids over Yemen since 2015, one-third of which are estimated to have struck civilian, non-military or unknown targets.

Between 2016 and 2018, the US signed arms deals worth over US$27 billion with Saudi Arabia, comprising small arms, missile systems, combat vehicles and training. The UAE imports nearly two-thirds of its military weapons from the US.

In February 2019, Mwatana, a Yemeni human rights group, documented 25 unlawful coalition air strikes that killed nearly 1,000 civilians using American-made weapons delivered by US-built aircraft. Saudi Arabia has bought more than 420 M1 Abrams tanks, 400 M2 Bradley fighting vehicles and an estimated 600 M109 Howitzers from the US, many of which are being used in the Yemen conflict. A CNN investigation found that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been transferring US-made weapons to local militias, some with links to al-Qaeda .

France, too, capitalised on the conflict—it was the UAE’s second-largest and Saudi Arabia’s third-largest arms supplier between 2014 and 2018. French arms sales to Saudi Arabia have included high-end laser-guided missile systems and tanks. These weapons are supplied to the roughly 6,500 UAE soldiers deployed in Yemen and neighbouring countries.

Australia has granted 57 export permits for military-related equipment to be sent to Saudi Arabia and the UAE since 2016. This includes the sale of 500 remote weapons systems made by Australian manufacturer EOS to Saudi Arabia. While the company’s CEO has stated categorically that ‘no EOS product has ever been deployed to or used in Yemen’, the question needs to be asked: how can Australia continue selling weapons to nations accused of horrendous human rights abuses?

France, Australia, the UK and 100 other nations—although notably not the US—are signatories of the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty, which obliges members to ‘monitor arms exports and ensure that weapons don’t … end up being used for human-rights abuses’. The leaked French intelligence report and research by investigative journalists and NGOs make it clear that arms and munitions supplied by Western nations are being used in Yemen and have been deployed in operations targeting civilians, transferred to third parties, and employed in other instances of broader human rights abuses.

Some nations have begun ending arms sales to the Saudi coalition. A non-binding resolution was passed in the European Parliament in late 2018 calling for member nations to halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia. It has been adopted or partially adopted by several states. In June, Britain’s court of appeal found the continued sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia to be unlawful because it would be used in violation of international humanitarian law. Also in June, the US Congress passed a resolution to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia but it didn’t muster the necessary votes in the Senate to override President Donald Trump’s veto.

A UN-led arms embargo could help end the coalition’s involvement in Yemen. Analyst Nelson Alusala has written that arms embargos ‘remain one of the most effective measures for maintaining or restoring peace and security’. It’s unlikely that the US, France and the UK would agree in the Security Council to such an embargo; however, mounting pressure from EU nations and the public might force their hands.

Susan Hutchinson recently argued that there are significant flaws in Australia’s multiagency system for defence exports and called for a parliamentary inquiry to assess our obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty. Other measures can and should be taken.

The government, the opposition and the parliament have been inexcusably quiet in the face of mounting evidence of war crimes in Yemen. We need to see greater transparency from government and the defence organisation to ensure that Australian weapons will not be used in Yemen.

While the UN-established Arms Trade Treaty requires individual states to monitor and record their foreign arms sales, this obligation is clearly overlooked by many arms suppliers to the Saudi-led coalition. Australia, as a key player in treaty’s establishment, could champion a multinational end-use monitoring body to hold nations accountable for the impact foreign arms sales are having when weapons are used illegally.

As nations that profess to defend the rules-based global order and human rights, Australia, France, Britain and the US should cease arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition and starve the warring countries of the arms and munitions that are being used to prolong the devastating conflict in Yemen.