Spain: Government must stop authorising arms exports to Saudi Arabia or risk complicity in war crimes

States that are still supplying arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition risk going down in history as being complicit in war crimes in Yemen, Amnesty International said today, as the Spanish government prepares to make a major decision on whether to suspend the transfer of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

On 4 September, the Spanish government announced that it would cancel the sale of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, following an international outcry over an airstrike on a school bus in Yemen which killed 40 children.

“Campaigners barely had time to welcome the news that Spain was cancelling a major arms shipment to Saudi Arabia before the government began backpedalling to appease its wealthy customer.
Steve Cockburn, Deputy Director of Global Issues

The Spanish government then reversed this decision on 12 September, citing the need to “honour a contract”. All deals with Saudi Arabia, made under the previous Spanish government, have been under review for the past few weeks and a final decision will be taken on Wednesday 19 September on whether to revoke existing licences and suspend new ones.

“Campaigners barely had time to welcome the news that Spain was cancelling a major arms shipment to Saudi Arabia before the government began backpedaling to appease its wealthy customer. After more than three years of devastating civil war in Yemen, thousands of dead civilians and an ever-growing list of apparent war crimes, there is no possible excuse for Spain, or any other country, to continue to arm the Saudi Arabia-led coalition,” said Steve Cockburn, Deputy Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.

“We are urging the Spanish government to take a stand on Wednesday and suspend arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition for use in Yemen. Any other course of action will send an unmistakable message that the Spanish government cares more about protecting its financial interests than protecting the lives of Yemeni civilians.”

Between 2015 and 2017, Spain exported arms to Saudi Arabia worth EUR 932 million and authorised licences worth EUR 1,235 million.

Precision guided munitions of the type which Spain plans to send to Saudi Arabia have been used to devastating effect across Yemen. They have struck hotels, hospitals, water wells, residential buildings, factories and most recently a school bus, resulting in appalling civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure.

Spain has ratified the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which prohibits the transfer between states of weapons, munitions and related items when it is known that they would be used for war crimes, or where there is an overriding risk they could contribute to serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Spain’s own law on arms exports prohibits arms transfers when there is reasonable suspicion that they could be used in human rights violations.

Under the Geneva Conventions, Spain is also required to respect and ensure respect for international  humanitarian law, including by refraining from supplying  arms used to violate the Conventions.

A global backlash

Many states continue to supply arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition despite years of devastating war in Yemen, but in recent weeks pressure has been mounting on major suppliers.

On 11 September, UK MPs held an emergency debate on the issue, at which the UK government defended continuing arm sales. A poll published on the same day found that just 13 percent of the British public support arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

On 12 September, US Congress forced a discussion on whether Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are undertaking sufficient measures to protect civilians in Yemen. The Trump administration stated that both countries “are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure”, giving the green light for continued US support.

“More and more countries are waking up to the fact that arming Saudi Arabia and the coalition bombing Yemen is incompatible with international law and humanitarian principles
Steve Cockburn

However there have recently been some encouraging signs that the tide is turning. Over the past year many countries including Belgium, Germany, Norway and Greece have responded to public pressure by partly or totally suspending arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other coalition members. Legal challenges are currently underway in the UK, France and Italy to compel these governments to comply with their legal obligations and stop supplying arms for use in Yemen.

“More and more countries are waking up to the fact that arming Saudi Arabia and the coalition bombing Yemen is incompatible with international law and humanitarian principles, and countries like the USA, UK and France are starting to look grossly out of step with the growing international consensus,” said Steve Cockburn.

“This week the Spanish government has a choice. It can continue with business as usual by honouring trade deals that have the potential to increase the horrendous suffering of Yemeni civilians, or it can take a principled and law-abiding approach and suspend all arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and its coalition members. We are calling on Spain to set an example for other countries, and end this shameful chapter in its history.”

Background

All parties to the conflict in Yemen have repeatedly committed violations of international law resulting in horrific suffering for civilians.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has carried out scores of unlawful attacks, including indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes that have killed and injured civilians and destroyed civilian objects, including homes, schools, hospitals, markets and mosques.

Huthi forces have indiscriminately shelled civilian-populated areas, especially in Tai’z, Yemen’s third largest city. They have laid antivehicle mines indiscriminately, used banned antipersonnel landmines and recruited children to fight, and arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared and tortured people in areas they control.