Only a few days apart, three major Western states announced they would stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Italy, which had temporarily suspended its sales to coalition members more than a year ago, made this ban permanent. Meanwhile, Australia and the United States of America announced a temporary suspension. The Amman Center for Human Rights Studies welcomes these new bans. However, the Center remains concerned by the fact that other Western states are still selling weapons to coalition members, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that such weapons are used in violation of international humanitarian law.
In March 2015, the internationally recognised President of Yemen, Abdo Robo Mansur Hadi, who had just been forced to flee the capital Sanaa because the Houthi rebel group had taken control of the city, invited Saudi Arabia and a newly formed coalition to help him take back control of the country. The intervention was supported by Western states, which were also selling arms to coalition members, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The list of states selling arms to the coalition is long and includes Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom (data retrieved from Sipri, 2018-2019).
However, the war in Yemen, which has been described by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, has had a terrible impact on the civilian population. According to the Yemen Data Project, more than 8 400 civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes alone. To this incredibly high number of casualties, should be added all the civilians who have been killed by other parties to the conflict or by the coalition but not through airstrikes, the injured, the internally displaced people, and those dying of starvation. When it comes to coalition’s attacks, Western powers are responsible as their weapons are being used. To only give an example, on October 8th, 2016, the coalition bombed the Deir Al-Hajari village, killing six civilians, including a pregnant woman and four children. As the village was not a military target, the attack was illegal under international humanitarian law. Bomb remnants and suspension lug manufactured by an Italian company, subsidiary to a German company, were later found on the site of the bombing (for more examples, see, on British weapons, and on French weapons).
Arms sales is not in itself illegal. Nevertheless, it is limited by international law. First of all, according to customary international humanitarian law, “States may not encourage violations of international humanitarian law by parties to an armed conflict”. This has been interpreted by the International Committee of the Red Cross as to entail that States ought to “refrain from transferring weapons if there is an expectation, based on facts or knowledge of past patterns, that such weapons would be used to violate the Conventions”. Such approach was further confirmed by the United Nations’ Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen.
Secondly, the Arms Trade Treaty (2014), to which all aforementioned states are parties, regulates arms sales. The treaty unequivocally declares that weapons should not be sold when the state knows such arms will be used to commit international crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes), namely, “attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians”. As such, Western powers ought to have stopped selling weapons to coalition members as soon as it became clear that they had little respect for international humanitarian law rules. Yet, they are still selling weapons.
The Center therefore calls on Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom to ban all arms sales to the coalition members, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. All those states pride themselves in being human rights respecting democracies. It is time they stand by this description and make sure human rights and international law are respected, including when selling weapons.