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Comment & analysis

The beginning of the end? European arms exports for the Yemen war

1 March 2018 Kloe Tricot O'Farrell and Roy Isbister

One of the tragedies of the war in Yemen is that many of the states insisting there is no military solution to the conflict are themselves responsible for supplying the arms that fuel and prolong the hostilities. However, an increasing number of European states are recognising this contradiction, and demonstrating a reluctance to supply military equipment at risk of being used in the Yemen conflict. It is high time others followed suit.

For almost three years, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has led a military campaign carried out by a coalition including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in support of exiled Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi against Houthi fighters who used to be aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The actions of the coalition, which has received material support and political cover from many Western states, have had devastating impacts on the Yemeni population and are moving the prospects for peace in Yemen further and further away.

Many civil society actors have accused the coalition of repeated violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and have called for arms exports that are at risk of being used in Yemen to be suspended. Certain Western states – including inter alia Bulgaria, France, Italy, Romania, the UK and the US – are apparently satisfied with the conduct of the Saudi-led coalition and continue to provide it with material support and political cover. However, several states have heeded or anticipated these calls for restraint in arms sales to a greater or lesser extent. 

In the Netherlands, while potential transfers are still considered on a case-by-case basis, licences have long been denied if there is a risk that the military goods concerned could be used for air or ground operations in Yemen, while a similar policy is in force in the Flemish Region of Belgium. Sweden, too, has for more than two years applied a restrictive approach to exporting arms at risk of being used in Yemen, though it nonetheless authorised several licences for exports to KSA and the UAE in the first half of 2017. The gap between these more restrictive approaches and the remarkably permissive policies of some other EU Member States is striking.

Recent developments suggest that this reluctance to ignore the excesses of the Saudi-led coalition is spreading, with more EU Member States and others who have aligned themselves with the EU Common Position on the control of exports of military technology and equipment (Common Position) announcing in January 2018 a tightening or a rethink of policy.

These include the Walloon Region of Belgium, which announced in January that it would no longer supply arms to the KSA Ministry of Defence for any operations outside of KSA territory, although the extent of that specific supply relationship is not clear.  This new restriction will not apply to the Saudi Royal and National Guards, to which Wallonia has a history of supplying arms, on the grounds that these forces only operate internally.  However, the National Guard has in the past been active outside of KSA (including in Kuwait in the first Gulf War and in Bahrain during the 2011 Arab Spring) and there is some ambiguity about whether they are playing a role in the Yemen conflict.  

As part of negotiations to form a coalition government, it was also announced in January that Germany would stop supplying arms to any of the warring parties in Yemen.  The Coalition Agreement states that “[f]rom now on, we will not authorise exports to countries as long as they are directly involved in the Yemen war”. However it seems that deliveries can continue against previously agreed contracts, though only if “already approved deliveries remain exclusively in the recipient country.” (See here for an unofficial English translation of the “For a restrictive arms export policy” section of the Coalition Agreement.)

Similarly, all of Finland's presidential candidates, including President Sauli Niinisto who was re-elected on 28 January, declared during the recent election campaign that they would halt arms sales to the UAE, after images were released showing that Finnish-made strategic items were being used in Yemen. 

Outside of the EU, on 3 January 2018, Norway, which is aligned to the Common Position and which was already operating a de facto ban on arming KSA, announced that it had suspended arms exports to the UAE over concerns they could be used in Yemen.

Although these changes are welcome, it is difficult to understand why it has taken so long to get to this point. It is also disappointing that in some cases these changes are still only half-measures – for example, the German decision to allow previously contracted deals to proceed suggests that economic concerns continue to be valued more than the lives of Yemeni civilians, at least to some extent.

While all parties to the conflict have been accused of repeatedly committing serious violations of IHL and IHRL, the coalition has bombed, blockaded and beaten Yemen to the brink of famine and shares responsibility for what is shaping up as one of the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years. As such, states that continue to arm the Saudi-led coalition despite these clear consequences are complicit in the fate of the Yemeni population.

At the heart of this sits a failure of transfer controls systems. Some EU Member States persist in claiming sales into the conflict are consistent with the Common Position and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), whereas rigorous application of the Common Position criteria and relevant ATT articles surely argues the opposite. The Common Position is up for review this year, and we can only hope that Member States will take the opportunity to address the weaknesses so glaringly exposed by Yemen. In the meantime, all states, be they within the EU or without, need to stop fuelling the conflict in Yemen and suspend the transfer of any arms at risk of being used in a war which is causing unspeakable human suffering.

Read more about our work on effective arms control.