Wednesday

22nd Aug 2018

Opinion

EU guns: invisible but powerful factor in Yemen war

Whilst the UN condemns Saudi Arabia for committing human rights violations in Yemen, the UK, France and Spain supply them with the means of doing so.

In the first week of February alone, 27 Yemenis were killed and 76 injured in the ongoing conflict which has torn apart the region since 2015, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (ONHCR).

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On one side is the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who aim to overthrow the government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The other side, led by Saudi Arabia, is conducting an air campaign to restore Hadi's authority.

The number of civilian casualties reported that week was more than double that of the week prior. Roughly half of these casualties were attributed to the Houthi forces, the other half to the Saudi-led coalition.

Since the Yemen conflict began in 2015, the UK has approved exports of licences to Saudi Arabia worth over £3.7bn (€4.2bn), according to Amnesty International.

In 2016, France sold over €1bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, with Spain and Italy exporting over €100m worth each, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

During this time, the coalition has bombed schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure. The Yemen Data Project has calculated that nearly a third of more than 15,000 air raids in Yemen have targeted non-military sites.

The CAAT says EU member states have continued to support the Saudi air campaign in Yemen by providing arms despite the overwhelming evidence of repeated breaches of humanitarian law.

"From our perspective, we would strongly argue that theys are in breach of the arms trade treaty," says Patrick Wilcken, researcher on arms control, security, trade and human rights for Amnesty International UK.

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is an international treaty that implements standards governing arms transfers.

The UK, Spain, France and Italy have all signed and ratified the treaty. Article 7 of the ATT holds that state parties must complete a risk assessment regarding the likelihood of human rights violations when exporting arms, refusing to export if there is a perceived risk.

"They were one of the early champions of creating the treaty," says Wilcken about the UK. "But most of the civilian casualties come from air strikes, and the main component of UK equipment has been combat aircrafts and related ammunitions."

Matt Clancy, humanitarian policy spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent says, "We are concerned about the gap between the duty to ensure respect for international humanitarian law in arms transfers and the actual transfer practices of too many states."

Earlier in March, the UK drafted a UN resolution - backed by the US and France - condemning Iran for violating an arms embargo in Yemen, by supplying the Houthi rebels with weapons.

The UN Security Council pushed this resolution due to Iran's violation of arms embargoes and their failure to prevent the transfer of banned arms to Houthi rebels, which have been used to target Yemen's neighbours.

"It is a bit rich that they are on one hand arguing that there must be placed an embargo on Iran, but that the Saudi coalition is a far more powerful and modern war machine that is wreaking much more damage," says Wilcken from Amnesty International.

Brexit arms trade?

The British former defence secretary Michael Fallon announced that after leaving the EU, Britain will "spread its wings across the world" with increased arms and equipment exports.

In this speech he did not directly refer to the crisis in Yemen and the accusation against Saudi Arabia of targeting civilians in their bombing campaign, but rather other global threats such as North Korea and terrorism.

Under the 2008 common position on EU code of conduct on arms exports, member states must not export military equipment or technology that may contribute to regional instability.

Where serious human rights violations have been established by the UN or the EU, special caution in issuing arms licences must be taken.

Saudi Arabia has committed numerous violations of International Humanitarian Law, according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2018.

The UN have said that this year there are 3.4 million more Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance than last year, and a total of 22.2 million.

Since the conflict began in 2015 there have been tens of thousands of civilian casualties.

"I think it would make a huge difference if the UK and other European states were to cease their arms exports to Saudi Arabia," says Wilcken.

Amina McCauley is a student of European foreign policy at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus

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