Wednesday

20th Feb 2019

Opinion

EU should ban arms sales to Yemen and Bahrain

  • 'The shooting doesn't stop,' a Yemeni activist SMS-ed on 30 April from Aden. 'Please, help us!' (Photo: j naylor)

The text message from a Yemeni activist was desperate. Security forces had opened fire on a square occupied by anti-government protesters in the port city of Aden on 30 April, killing two and wounding dozens. "The shooting doesn't stop," she wrote. "Please, help us!"

Cries for help have been streaming out of Yemen since February, when security forces and pro-government assailants began brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters seeking to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

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The attacks have killed at least 121 people and injured hundreds, many from gunfire. People are also pleading for help in Bahrain, where security forces shot dead at least a dozen protesters as well as several security agents during demonstrations in February and March.

Yet while European leaders deplore the violence in both Bahrain and Yemen, they have done precious little to stem the flow of weapons that both governments have used against their citizens. Each year, EU states export millions of euros worth of guns, teargas, and other arms to these repressive governments, with scant regard for how these sales make them complicit in the murders of ordinary people demanding their rights.

When EU ministers meet on Friday (13 May) in Brussels, they should ban all arms sales to Yemen, Bahrain, and any other country that is using excessive force to quash legitimate dissent.

EU members already have taken a few important steps, but they fall far short of what is needed to end the brutality. On 6 May, EU foreign ministers agreed to suspend weapons sales to Syria after security forces there killed hundreds of peaceful protesters.

In February, the UK revoked 156 licenses for weapons sales to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, and ordered a review of weapons sales to Yemen. France swiftly followed suit by announcing it was suspending arms sales to Bahrain and Libya.

This piecemeal approach, though, willfully ignores the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports of 1998, which calls on all member states not to sell weapons to countries or regions where there is a clear risk that they will be used for internal repression or other human rights abuses.

The code has been in place in its current form since 2008, when repression was already well documented in countries whose citizens ultimately rose up in this year's so-called 'Arab spring.'

Yet total EU arms exports to north Africa and the Middle East nearly doubled, from €5.8 billion in 2008 to €11.6 billion in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the EU's annual report on arms exports.

That included weapons sales of €100 million in 2009 to Yemen. The biggest EU supplier that year was Bulgaria, which sold €85.9 million worth of firearms, ammunition, bombs, rockets or missiles, followed by the Czech Republic, with €7.4 million and France, with €4 million.

In 2008, the UK led the pack in weapons sales to Yemen, its sales that year valued at €17.8 million.

According to a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the 2009 Bulgarian sale included 30,000 assault rifles as well as explosives and rocket propelled grenades. The cable expressed concerns that the deal, financed by the United Arab Emirates, would contribute to small arms proliferation in Yemen - a country with an active al-Qaeda branch and where the ratio of weapons to people already approaches 1:2.

The UK was a leading arms exporter to Bahrain in 2010, with £5.7 million [€6.4 million] in sales, according to the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade. UK sales to Bahrain in the past five years include sub-machineguns, sniper rifles, smoke canisters, stun grenades, tear gas and riot shields.

In 2009, Bahrain received €39.8 million in weapons from EU member states; France sold it €28 million, Belgium €6.3 million, Sweden €2.4 million, and Germany €2 million, the EU arms report said.

The EU is hardly alone in selling arms to human rights violators. The US is the world's leading supplier of conventional arms to the Middle East, and hundreds of people suffered severe reactions after security forces in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen fired US-made tear gas at peaceful protesters. The US in April announced that it is reviewing arms sales to the region on a "case-by-case" basis. The EU can do far better.

The 27 EU member states immediately should ban exports of arms and security equipment to Yemen and Bahrain in response to their brutal repression of peaceful dissent until authorities in the two countries stop their violent crackdowns against citizens, conduct independent investigations into the attacks, prosecute suspected perpetrators, and recognize and compensate victims.

Until the EU matches its words with those actions, the blood of Arab spring protesters will stain its hands.

Letta Tayler is a Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch

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