On Wednesday, Sept. 4, the United Nations published a report saying that the United States, the United Kingdom, Iran and France – among other countries – may be complicit in war crimes by backing the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen with arms, intelligence and logistics.
The UN panel that made the announcement also established a list of 160 politicians and military officers – including those from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – who could face war crimes charges. They also highlighted the role of western countries on one side, and Iran on the other, in fueling the 5-year-long war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries in the coalition, entered the Yemen war in 2015 in efforts to restore the previous government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Haddi, a sworn ally of the monarchies, after the Iran-aligned Houthis toppled him in late 2014.
Since, the restless war only grew increasingly polarizing, as prospects of peace between the Loyalists and the Houthis remain out of sight. According to the United Nations, which called the war “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, 24.1 million Yemenis – out of a population of 30.5 million – currently need assistance.
By the end of 2018, the war has seen 4.8 million Yemenis displaced, 60.000 injured and over 10.000 dead, according to Humanitarian Response, a digital service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
But if the United Nations has only pointed out the complicity of Western countries recently, numerous nonprofit organizations were already denouncing the coalition’s arms suppliers on the same accusations.
As the Saudi-led coalition often failed to spare civilians in its attacks, organisations like Amnesty International, Campaign Against Arms Trade and Human Rights Watch have condemned Western countries, insisting that the arms the coalition uses come from Europe and the United States for the most part.
In October 2016, a funeral ceremony was hit in a deliberate air raid that had left 140 civilians dead. In April 2018, 30 people died during a wedding feast, 13 of which were children. Later in October 2018, a US-supplied bomb dropped on a bus in the middle of a road, leaving 41 children dead among a total of 51 victims.
Besides, there were other cases of schools and hospitals being bombed – as well as, in early September, a prison where 100 inmates died. When standing in the face of accusations, Riyadh merely deemed those incidents as “sad mistakes”.
The war in Yemen, which currently stands as the most impoverished country in the Arab World, is all the more stained by human rights abuses, famine, rape, murder, torture and the forcing of children to fight. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have worked on blocking humanitarian aid as a war tactic, worsening the famine that threatens the majority of Yemenis.
The two monarchies currently head the lists of numerous European and U.S. arms suppliers. To countries such as the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden or even Bulgaria, ending the war in Yemen is equal to terminating highly profitable arms deals.
In his first overseas presidential trip, in 2017, Donald Trump headed for Riyadh where he sealed, with Mohammad Bin Salman, a “historical” arms deal worth nearly $110 billion – and $350 billion over 10 years. Last June, France declared it had reached deals worth over 1.3 billion euros with Saudi Arabia in 2018. The monarchy’s deals with the United Kingdom had reached over 1.5 billion euros in 2017, whereas those with Germany accounted for 477 million euros.
In Britain, a recent report has estimated that the United Kingdom earned eight times more from arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition than it spent on aid to help civilians living under the conflict.
Campaign Against Arms Trade, a UK-based organization standing for the abolition of the international arms trade, has long condemned Britain’s arms supplying in the Yemen war. On June 20, the Court of Appeal ruled that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen were unlawful, after a legal action taken by the Campaign Against Arms Trade. (The UK government still sells arms to Saudi Arabia and other countries of the coalition.)
In France, 17 non-profit organizations have called for France to stop supplying arms to Saudi Arabia and the coalition, in response to the airstrike that targeted the prison and killed 100 inmates on September 1. In Italy, Rete Disarmo pleads for a similar aim.
In contrast to their governments’ reticence in discussing the conflict, a growing number of other European non-profit organizations have proceeded to legal actions before the International Criminal Court, as well as their respective national courts.
Making substantial profits from the deals, the accused governments often rationalise about their arms trade with the coalition. In France, a politician, Fabien Gouttefarde – who is also president of France-Yemen Friendship Group – went as far as stating that, somehow, Yemen was accountable for the Charlie Hebdo attack, the deals, therefore, being strategic and legitimate.
“We must not forget Charlie Hebdo,” he said. “Deadly terrorist attacks have come from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with fallbacks in Yemen. There was indeed a terrorist threat that the coalition helped to fight.”
But even if for some the coalition is leading a counterterrorism war, many reports have shown that, in contrary, the coalition – far from worrying about terrorism – cooperated with Al-Qaida against the Houthis (see the Associated Press’ “U.S.-allies, Al-Qaida battle rebels in Yemen”, August 7, 2018).
In last February, a CNN investigation disclosed that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates transferred US-made weapons to groups with ties to Al-Qaida and a militia whose commander had served with a Yemen-based branch of ISIS.
The Arms Trade Treaty, having entered into force in December 2014 upon which it was ratified by 104 countries (save the United States, China and Russia), ensures that no arms trade is permitted if there is a “substantial risk” that could violate “international human rights or humanitarian law,” among other contents.
But anti-trade advocates and the concerned governments do not appear to be in the same wavelength on what could constitute the “substantial risk”. Whereas some denounce human rights crimes, with a patent involvement of the arms suppliers, the governments in question often talk of mere “collateral damages”.
Following the death, on October 2018, of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who fled to the United States in fear of retaliation to his outright dissent from Saudi Arabia, Germany was the first Western country to impose arms-trade sanctions on Riyadh. Other countries, like Austria, Norway, Denmark and Finland, later proceeded to the arms embargo as well.
But the monarchy’s major arms suppliers, namely the United Kingdom, France or the United States, remained engaged in providing Saudi Arabia and its war allies with arms, intelligence and logistics, bolstering their offensive in Yemen until present days.
The arms trade embargo appeared to represent a mere non-event to Saudi Arabia – the world’s second arms importer – and the coalition. Besides the continual support from their customary allies, the Gulf monarchies engaged in the Yemen war have recently seen a growing number of European arms manufacturers settling locally.
In recent months, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have increased announcements of launching joint ventures and opening plants in partnership with Europe’s biggest arms industrials – names as big as Thales, Naval Group, Leonardo, Cockerill Maintenance & Ingénierie, Navantia, Airbus, M.B.D.A. and others.