Global backlash has slowly built against the Yemen civil war, particularly among Western nations as protestors across Europe condemn their governments’ roles in the conflict. Most recently, French outcries led to a Saudi cargo ship leaving port without its scheduled payload of arms and ammunition destined for Riyadh’s soldiers. A French human rights group, the Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), had argued in court Friday that the supplying of Saudi troops violated the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty which forbids governments from transferring weapons if they know they will be used in war crimes or against civilians.
Although the court ruled against ACAT, thus allowing the weapons transfer to proceed, for unknown reasons the ship abandoned the plans and instead began sailing for Spain.
The prior day, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke publicly about the arms sale, declaring that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are partners in the fight against “terrorism.” He went a step further by assuring the French protestors that Riyadh had promised his government that the weapons would not be used against civilians.
“It’s not enough to say ‘I have guarantees’, we need to be shown them,” said Aymeric Elluin, an advocacy officer at Amnesty International France in an interview with Al Jazeera.
Elluin in essence spoke collectively for protestors across Europe who have grown weary of complacency that borders on complicity in the growing humanitarian crisis. In their view, supplying Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. makes them and European governments just as criminal as those who drop bombs on schools and murder civilians.
International efforts to stop the crisis have until recently found little success. Since 2015, mainstream news and political discussion across the United States and Europe have revolved around Brexit and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and Russia. In that time, an estimated 56,000 civilians have been killed, excluding those who’ve died from illness or starvation, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
That number may well be higher – the Saudi and Emirati governments limit war zone access for journalists and international observers, undoubtably an intentional move to suppress reports of the actual carnage. Keeping the public in the dark has allowed the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran to fester and Western governments have seen no reason to challenge them because they are the de facto benefiters of the war, not Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., or Iran, nor the Houthis or Yemen government. Regardless of which side emerges on top, the military industrial complex, lobbyists, and politicians in Europe and the U.S. have reaped the most rewards.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated that Washington and London have supplied 68 and 16 percent of Saudi weapons imports, respectively. France, Germany, and Spain were also selling weapons to Riyadh, but Germany recently extended a weapons export ban following the murder of Washington Post Journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
President Trump recently rebuffed efforts by the U.S. Congress to end Washington’s support, vetoing a war powers resolution that was passed by both the Senate and House of Representatives. His argument against the resolution was centered on three points: signing the resolution would be antithetical to his title of ‘Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces,’ it would endanger 80,000 U.S. citizens who are in the vicinity of Houthi rebels, and the wording of the bill did not properly encompass U.S. support by way of intelligence gathering and aircraft refueling. All of these arguments conveniently ignore the fact that the Riyadh purchases more weapons from the U.S. than any other country, weapons that are without a doubt used in Yemen.
On the other hand, the war powers resolution was limited in scope to address only U.S. military involvement, not the private weapons industry which recorded $18 billion of sales to the kingdom in 2017. An export ban would be unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate which historically has favored laissez-faire economics.
As international pressure to stop the flow of arms to Yemen reaches a boiling point, the U.N. is cautiously optimistic that a peaceful end might be on the horizon. On Saturday, Houthis began withdrawing from three ports in accordance with redeployment plans created in coordination with the U.N. Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC). The deal, struck last December, was the first headway towards an end to the conflict. While the Houthi rebels seem to be honoring their side of the agreement by returning the ports to international control, the Yemeni government has called the moves a “flagrant show” designed to fool international observers.
Despite the distrust, a representative from the government said that it would defer to the U.N. for verification that the December pact is honored. After four years, innumerable deaths, and slow-building international outrage, the Yemen crisis could soon begin to cool down.