Arms Trade in 2018

A year in arms supplies to the Saudi/UAE coalition

This year was another gruelling one in the conflict in Yemen, a country where millions of people are at risk of famine and nearly 17,000 civilians have been killed or injured since the war began.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalition air forces crisscrossed Yemen, bombing residential areas, civilian infrastructure, and even hitting a school bus full of children.

In reckless ground attacks, Yemen’s Huthi armed group indiscriminately shelled urban centres and villages. And states, most significantly the USA and the UK, but also France and Italy, among others, continued to send billions of dollars of sophisticated military equipment in support of the coalition forces.

Public protest and policy shift

But as the toll on the civilian population rose, 2018 saw a distinct shift in policy and practice amongst those arming the coalition. Under intense pressure from Amnesty International and other civil society organizations, journalists and parliamentarians, some states began cutting off arms supplies.

The shift began at the end of 2017 when Amnesty International Greece led protests against the proposed transfer of 300,000 tank shells from Greece to Saudi Arabia and the substantial risk that they could be used in Yemen. Breaking with precedent, a parliamentary committee cancelled the deal. In January 2018, Norway suspended supplies of lethal equipment to the UAE, citing concerns over the situation in Yemen. When images emerged of a Finnish-made Patria armoured vehicle being deployed by UAE forces in Yemen, all eight candidates in Finland’s February presidential elections pledged to suspend sales.

Most dramatically, in April, Germany, a major arms manufacturer and exporter, appeared to change tack. The country’s incoming coalition announced that it would suspend future licences for arms transfers to countries directly engaged in the Yemen conflict. Joining what appeared to be a growing trend, in September the Spanish government announced it would cancel the sale of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, following an international outcry over an air strike on a Yemeni school bus in the city of Sa’da, northern Yemen, which killed 40 children.

Nearly 17,000 civilians have been killed or injured in Yemen since the conflict started

States recant on promises

But as the year wore on some of these states appeared to recant. Ignoring the election promises and more footage of Patria armoured vehicles in action in Yemen, Finland authorized licences for vehicle spare parts to the UAE. Despite earlier coalition promises, Germany continued to approve sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

More contradictory still is the situation in Spain. Eight days after announcing the cancellation of the bomb sales, the Spanish government backed down under intense pressure both domestically and from Saudi Arabia. The bombs were shipped in late September, and the following month, in a parliamentary debate, the government refused to bend to pressure from Amnesty International and other civil society groups and commit to revoking past licences and suspending future sales.

While many western states are beginning to question their support for the coalition, the USA and the UK – the two largest suppliers – have stood firm, not only supplying the equipment that is being used to bomb civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure, but providing vital technical and logistical assistance to the Royal Saudi Air Force.

Supplier states and arms companies under fire

But as the civilian casualties mount and the catastrophic humanitarian situation worsens, the pressure on arms-supplying governments intensifies. In the UK, opposition parties have repeatedly called for an end to the arming of Saudi Arabia, and public opinion is overwhelmingly against the current policy. While a judicial review challenging the UK government’s decision to continue authorizing arms supplies to Saudi Arabia was rejected last year, two Court of Appeal judges granted permission to appeal in May 2018. In the USA, opposition in Congress is growing, threatening the transfer of 120,000 precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In a separate action, in September, there were renewed attempts to invoke the 1973 War Powers Act to end US involvement in the Yemen conflict on the grounds that Congress never authorized it. 

The extrajudicial execution of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist, in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, has raised further concerns in the US Congress and the UK parliament about the continuing arms supplies to the Kingdom. Chancellor Angela Merkel said that German arms exports would be put on hold and Switzerland vowed to suspend exports of spare parts and air defence munitions. The EU parliament responded to the incident by reiterating its call on EU member states to impose an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.

As supplier states faced pressure, arms companies also came under fire. Amnesty International and other organizations have documented remnants of munitions, manufactured by leading US arms companies such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, recovered from the rubble in the aftermath of controversial air strikes. The UK’s BAE Systems continues to supply and service Saudi Arabia’s formidable fleet of combat aircraft. Household names such as Boeing, General Electric and Rolls-Royce supply aircraft engines and munitions.

In April a coalition of NGOs in Italy and Germany filed a criminal complaint against managers of RWM Italia S.p.A., (a subsidiary of the German arms giant Rheinmetall AG), and senior officials of Italy’s export authorities to the public prosecutor in Rome. The complaint concerns the export of a bomb – manufactured by RWM in Sardinia and exported by Italy – which killed six civilians in Yemen when it was used in an air strike on Deir al-Hajari, a village in the northwest, in October 2016.

Shameful business-as-usual attitude

The events in Yemen pose a stark challenge to all those involved. The conduct of supplier states and companies in the face of likely war crimes is being subjected to ever closer scrutiny and vociferous protest. Amid some principled decisions on the part of mainly smaller states to stop supplying the coalition, the USA and the UK in particular, but also Spain, France and Italy, among others, have adopted a shameful business-as-usual attitude, undermining international law on arms transfers that they helped to create and committed to respect. Large corporations – like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems – are their willing partners in irresponsibility on an industrial scale. 

Campaigners across the world must keep applying pressure on governments and companies. States must abide by their legal obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty and stop supplying all arms, munitions, military technology and assistance for use in the Yemen conflict. They must also use their leverage as key players in the region to pressure the coalition to abide by their international obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law. Otherwise they risk complicity in violations and war crimes, committed in a conflict that has not only killed and maimed tens of thousands of civilians but displaced millions more and left the country on the brink of a catastrophic famine.