The Role of Arms Exports in the Yemen War

Source: Gulf Centre for Human Rights

Since a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia entered Yemen in 2015, the country has been ravaged by continuous air strikes, arbitrary artillery attacks and numerous violations of fundamental human rights. The anti-Houthi coalition consists of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sudan, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Most airstrikes are launched by Saudi Arabia – often hitting civilian targets. These attacks constitute violations of customary international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes, as they violate the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution.

After the US, European countries are the main suppliers of weapons to the coalition. Particularly military aircrafts and (guided) bombs from Europe make up a large part of the coalition’s air force arsenal. With the approval of national government officials, defense companies from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK have contributed to the dire situation in Yemen by exporting bombs, aircrafts and spare parts to the warring parties – despite indications that these might be used to commit violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, as well as amount to war crimes (Perlo-Freeman 2019).

Yemen war: Profits at the expense of human lifes

“The conflict in Yemen is a stark example of how arms companies’ executives and government officials can potentially abet international crimes committed by (states in their own countries) and in other states.” (ECCHR 2021)

The ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Yemen had its beginnings several years ago: After Houthi armed forces took over Yemen’s capital Sana’a, a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia entered the country in 2015 in support of President Hadi, which led to an escalation of the conflict in Yemen (Bales / Mutschler 2019, 2; HRW 2020a). Ever since, the country has been ravaged by continuous air strikes, arbitrary artillery attacks, and numerous violations of fundamental human rights (UNHRC 2020, 4). Most airstrikes are launched by Saudi Arabia while Sudan provides the largest amount of ground forces. The UAE is active in air warfare but also temporarily on the ground (Reuters 2015; Perlo-Freeman 2019).

teal blue = Yemen / grey = states that between 2015 and 2020 were involved in the Yemen War

According to the UN, the Yemen conflict remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis (OCHA 2021). A multitude of grave violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law (IHRL) are committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, some of which may amount to war crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (HRW 2020b; UNHRC 2020, 10f.; see also ICC, Art. 8 of the Rome Statute). All parties to the conflict, including Saudi military forces, Saudi-backed Yemeni forces and UAE-backed militia have committed acts of ill treatment, reaching from disappearances and arbitrary arrests to torture, public executions, and sexual abuse (UNSC 2019, 53ff.; UNHRC 2020, 4/10f.; Henckaerts/ Doswald2005, Rule 156; OSESGY, 2021). Hundreds of cases of child recruitment – some no older than seven years – by Houthi forces and the Government of Yemen are documented and there is evidence that child soldiers recruited by Saudi Arabia are used on the battlefield as part of Sudanese ground troops (UNSC 2019, 55; Kirkpatrick 2018).

Ongoing airstrikes led by Saudi Arabia and the use of mortar and rocket shells in populated areas by Houthi forces are disproportionally affecting civilians (UNSC 2019, 47f./51; ECCHR 2020a; UNHRC 2020,7). Even if no deliberate targeting of civilians can be proven, both sides at least knowingly accept civilian casualties, as numerous artillery attacks hit hospitals, marketplaces, schools, or housing areas (ECCHR 2018; UNHRC 2020, 6f.). According to the Yemen Data Project, at least one-third of the approximately 25 000 air raids have so far hit non-military targets (as of June 2022) (YDP 2022). These attacks constitute violations of customary IHL (Henckaerts/ Doswald2005, Rule 11/14/15/156).

By the end of 2021, an estimated 154 000 Yemenis had died from warfare. Furthermore, 223 000 people had died due to the worsening socioeconomic and humanitarian situation (UNDP 2021, 32). Approximately 10 000 Yemeni children have been killed or maimed since the coalition entered the conflict (Reuters 2021). Besides naval and aerial blockades installed by Saudi Arabia, the various parties to the conflict impede access of aid organizations to the country through restrictions, bureaucratic hurdles and looting, which constitutes a violation of IHL (Henckaerts/ Doswald2005, Rule 55; UNHRC 2020, 8f.). As a result, Yemeni people are largely cut off from humanitarian aid (OCHA 2020; HRW 2020c). According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 66% of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance (OCHA 2021). More than 16 million people suffer from food insecurity, nearly half of the children under five are at risk of acute malnutrition (WFP 2021).

Until recently, international peace negotiations have remained without lasting success: A first voluntary agreement between the Yemeni Government and the Houthi forces was reached by the UN-backed Stockholm Agreement in December 2018. While it did lead to a fragile ceasefire with minor clashes throughout 2019 in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida – an important entry point for humanitarian aid, food, and fuel – the security situation in Yemen started to escalate once again in October 2020 (UN 2018; UNSC 2018; UCDP 2022; UNSC 2021, 10f./15; UCDP 2022). Attempts by Saudi Arabia to unify the STC and the Government of Yemen in their fight against Houthi forces collapsed: The Riyadh Agreement between both parties in 2019 was never truly implemented and in 2020 the STC ended their participation (Reuters 2020). Tensions and military clashes between STC and the Government of Yemen continued throughout 2020 (HIIK 2021, 195). Hopes for peace have recently been revived in April 2022: The warring parties have announced a two-month ceasefire (extended for two more months in June) and President Hadi has declared his withdrawal making room for an eight-member President’s council whose main objective is to negotiate peace with Houthi rebels. But observers remain cautious as to how successful this process will be.  

European Companies and Governments: Fueling the Conflict?
Evidence suggests that European companies are complicit in unlawful acts of war and war crimes in Yemen: Remnants of European bombs and guidance kits have been identified on air strike sites in Yemen and several sources have confirmed the use of European military jets (ECCHR 2020a). After the US, European countries are the main suppliers of weapons to the anti-Houthi forces. Particularly military aircrafts and (guided) bombs from Europe make up a large part of the coalition’s air force arsenal (ECCHR 2020a; Perlo-Freeman 2019).

Withering Life: The Human Rights Situation in Yemen 2018. Mwatana for Human Rights.

The ExitArms-database has identified almost 468 arms deliveries to warring parties involved in the war in Yemen for the years 2015 to 2020. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates accounted for the majority of the deliveries. Companies such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Leonardo, Boeing and Airbus were the main arms exporters.

With the approval of national government officials, these defense companies have contributed to the dire situation in Yemen by exporting bombs, aircrafts and spare parts to the warring parties – despite indications that these might be used to commit violations of IHL and IHRL, as well as amount to war crimes (Perlo-Freeman 2019). Such exports break European and international export control laws, such as the European Common Position on arms export control, or the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).
 
Evidence on the potential role and legal responsibility of European companies and governments in Yemen was also brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2019, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) along with Amnesty International, the Campaign Against Arms Trade, and Mwatana for Human Rights, filed a so-called “communication” to the ICC. The communication targets high ranking individuals of European aircraft and bomb manufacturers and arms export licensing authorities from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK (ECCHR 2020a). A first necessary step would be a decision by the ICC to open a preliminary investigation into whether the factual and legal grounds are sufficient for an official investigation. The ICC would then consider whether the case falls within its own jurisdiction. If so, the court would initiate official investigations against the respective individuals of national authorities and European companies (ECCHR 2020b). As of June 2022, a decision as to whether the ICC will open a preliminary investigation is still pending.
 
Conclusion
Business activities of private companies are by no means politically neutral – this is particularly true for the arms industry. The ExitArms-database shows that defense companies have enabled and continuously supported unlawful military attacks by exporting weaponry and maintenance services to warring parties in Yemen. Corporate officials and government executives must be held accountable for controversial business deals that have made them complicit in war crimes and the deaths of several hundred thousand Yemenis, caused directly and indirectly through warfare. Furthermore, Facing Finance and urgewald urge financial institutions to stop financing and investing in  such defense contractors.

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