The French and British governments pushed Germany to resume its arms trade with the kingdom. Yet millions of civilian lives are at stake in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.
Four years after the beginning of the war in Yemen, Germany is under pressure from the French and British governments to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia. However, Germany’s arms embargo was the right decision and countries that still sell arms to Saudi Arabia should follow its example.
For EU Member States, any decision on the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia should comply with the EU Common Position adopted in 2008, namely that no arms exports should be made if there is a “clear risk” that these weapons will be used to commit “serious violations of international humanitarian law”.
Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of attacks by the Saudi and Emirati coalition in Yemen in violation of the laws of war, many of which constitute war crimes. Dozens of indiscriminate and disproportionate air strikes have killed and injured thousands of civilians, including many children, and struck civilian areas, including markets, homes, schools and hospitals. The armed conflict has wreaked havoc on the civilian population of Yemen and serious violations of the laws of war by the parties to the conflict have exacerbated what the United Nations has called the greatest humanitarian disaster in the world. Millions of Yemenis suffer from famine, millions are displaced.
The coalition has repeatedly committed itself to minimizing damage to civilians in future military operations. But in fact, no changes to improve its targeting choices or its ability to assess damage to civilians have been found. Not only has the coalition failed to end its violations, but it has also failed to credibly investigate alleged war crimes. Its so-called investigative body does nothing more than cover up atrocities.
In November, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on member states to suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Austria, Denmark, Finland and Norway (member of the European Economic Area) reportedly stopped their arms sales. But not the United Kingdom or France, for which Saudi Arabia remains a major arms customer.
Last October, French President Emmanuel Macron implicitly attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, saying that it was “pure demagogy to say “stop selling arms”. The British Foreign Secretary also criticised Germany’s decision, ignoring the recent findings of a British parliamentary committee that the United Kingdom is in breach of its own export licensing rules when it comes to selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
Although an important point of the coalition treaty between the ruling parties in Germany, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, the ban on arms sales did not really enter into force until after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018, ending all ongoing sales, without exception, in Saudi Arabia.
There is no doubt that Germany’s ban has repercussions on European defence projects such as the Eurofighter fighter aircraft. But by continuing their arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite Saudi atrocities in Yemen, France and the United Kingdom risk becoming accomplices to serious abuses, sending the message that their economic interests prevail over the lives of Yemeni civilians.
As France and Germany prepared to hold a joint presidency of the UN Security Council, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, pledged, with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, that the two countries would work together to protect multilateralism, as well as “human rights and international humanitarian law, which are violated every day throughout the world”. To continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia despite violations of international law by the coalition it leads and to put pressure on Germany to reverse its decision is in flagrant contradiction with this commitment.
“We have, because of our history, very good reasons to have very strict guidelines for arms exports,” Merkel recently said. Germany should stick to its principles and not compromise in the name of profit and to avoid disagreements within its defence community. The lives and livelihoods of millions of civilians are at stake in Yemen. They should not be sacrificed on the altar of weakened European requirements for arms export controls. Instead of putting pressure on Germany, France should keep its promises and follow the same path by putting an end to its arms sales to the Saudi Kingdom.