Are French weapons used against civilians by the coalition countries, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates, engaged in the war in Yemen? The French authorities consider that the risk is “under control”. This is contested by many sources. The responsibility of the arms-producing country is therefore asserted under international law. That is progress.
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It is a “dirty war” that is taking place far from pens, cameras and microphones in Yemen. More than 10,000 civilian deaths, more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian aid, 14 million Yemenis without access to health care: the humanitarian situation is dramatic.
This conflict pits Shia rebels against an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the support of the United States. But not only that.
Because France has a longstanding trade relationship with Saudi Arabia. In 2017, this country was even France’s second largest customer in terms of arms sales: 11 billion euros in orders over the last nine years. In early 2017, when he was President of the Republic, François Hollande even gave the green light to an administrative authorisation to sell weapons to the Saudis… against the advice of his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault.
As for the United Arab Emirates, another important customer, France maintains very close military cooperation ties with this country: a defence agreement and the establishment of a military base in Abu Dhabi in 2009.
1) Are there war crimes in Yemen?
That’s more than likely. According to a report by a group of experts, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, all parties to the conflict (particularly coalition countries) could be responsible for war crimes and serious violations of international law.
According to the report, Saudi Arabia’s coalition strikes “caused the most direct civilian casualties”.
There are facts that are likely to be qualified as war crimes, confirms the president of this group of experts, Kamel Jendoubi. Several civilian objectives were attacked: funeral processions, weddings, hospitals, buildings… neighbourhoods where there were no military objectives.
2) What French weapons are found in Yemen?
“We have recently sold no weapons that can be used in the Yemeni conflict.” This was stated by the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, on Sunday, January 20, 2019, on France Inter.
However, according to the Observatory of Armaments (which published a report in April 2018 with the FIDH, the League of Human Rights and the Sisters’ Arab forum for human rights), there are about fifteen references to French weapons that could be involved in the war in Yemen: light armoured vehicles, transport helicopters, surveillance drones, precision rifles, frigates, patrol boats in support of warships, tankers, mortar shells…
Weapons exported in the 1990s, such as Leclerc tanks sold to the United Arab Emirates, are also used in Yemen, as shown in this article by a military instructor on “Lessons from the engagement of Leclerc tanks in Yemen” in which we learn that “Leclerc tanks have a more than satisfactory operational readiness”.
Mirages 2000 were also sold by Dassault to the Emirates before the conflict began. Systems (called “pods”) for targeting and recognizing the company Thalès also equip these Mirages.
In addition, the government continues to authorise the signing of new contracts such as the sale of Gowind 2500 corvettes designed by Naval Group in the United Arab Emirates or the supply of patrol boats to Saudi Arabia in early 2018 manufactured by the Cherbourg shipyard.
Caesar (Nexter) guns, with a range of 40 kilometres, were also delivered to Saudi Arabia, officially placed along the Saudi border. But for Aymeric Elluin of Amnesty International France, “these guns mounted on trucks are easily movable and can affect civilians”.
France also provides satellite assistance and digital weapons, including through a French company, Aircom, which sells its telecommunications monitoring technology to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
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3) Can French companies be concerned?
On paper, yes.
Indeed, we not only sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but also a whole range of technical assistance: spare parts, training of technicians, equipment modernization, maintenance, operational refurbishment…”
This assistance by French companies to the Saudi and Emirati military may constitute complicity in war crimes, if it concerns equipment used against Yemeni civilians,” said Hélène Legeay, an expert on armaments issues in Yemen.
“A[French] company may be held criminally liable on the charge of manslaughter and complicity in war crimes if it is established that after the conflict began, and despite public denunciations of serious violations perpetrated by the parties to the conflict, it has delivered equipment or provided training that has made it possible to commit one of these violations,” the Ancile law firm’s report also states.
A worrying maritime blockade
Indeed, a whole part of humanitarian aid is regularly blocked by coalition ships, with catastrophic consequences for the civilian population. A situation that may constitute a war crime according to the United Nations Group of Experts. However, French ships and maintenance are provided to the coalition countries. “Under international humanitarian law, there may be a qualification as a war crime, if the intent is proven by a judicial body,” explains the chairman of the group of experts, Kamel Jendoubi. The legal risk exists, it’s clear and unambiguous.”
4) Why is France a priori out of the scope of a complaint?
According to a legal study, prepared in March 2018, at the request of Amnesty International and Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), there is an extremely high legal risk that arms transfers from France to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will be illegal.
Indeed, France signed the International Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in 2014 and the European Union’s Common Position in 2008. These texts normally require France to suspend its arms sales if there is a risk that they may be used to commit or facilitate human rights or humanitarian law violations. This seems to be the case in the war in Yemen.
“But France has been careful not to transpose these treaties into its national law,” regrets Hélène Legeay. Therefore, a French or Yemeni citizen cannot sue France in court for violating its international commitments.”
For the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, the Arms Trade Treaty has been “directly integrated into our national law, without the need for any specific internal transposition measures”. The Quai d’Orsay considers that the European common position “does not require transposition measures”.
For its part, the ASER (Action sécurité éthique républicaines) association brought an action before the Paris Administrative Court to request the suspension of export licences and war material to countries involved in the war in Yemen.
5) Why was there never a commission of inquiry?
“It was explained to me that there were too many economic issues at stake, and that my request for a commission of inquiry should therefore be brought to the table!” The deputy for Haute-Garonne, Sébastien Nadot (excluded from the La République en marche group in December 2018 for voting against the budget), was refused the establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry on arms sales in Yemen.
Instead, the Committee on Foreign Affairs preferred to create a parliamentary fact-finding mission, but with less power. The co-rapporteur of this mission, Jacques Maire, a former diplomat, says he wants to “improve the control system”, but “without weakening French armaments”.
For Aymeric Elluin of Amnesty International France, “France must strengthen the contradictory debate on the subject, as in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. And that arms sales become a subject like any other in the presidential election.”
“We respect our international commitments” The response of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
When asked about the main points of our investigation, the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs states that “anything that may affect the safety of civilians is one of the criteria that[leads it] to authorise or not authorise such arms exports”, in the context of a “case-by-case analysis”.
“We respect our international commitments for all arms sales,” the ministry says.
For the Quai d’Orsay, the relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is part of “strategic partnerships”, with “a desire to contribute to stability in the Middle East”. “The Emirates’ determined action against Daesh and Al Qaeda cells in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen supports our security interests,” the ministry said.
“International humanitarian law[must] be fully respected in the conduct of hostilities, particularly the principle of proportionality and the protection of civilians in Yemen. (…) Full and unhindered access for humanitarian assistance remains our main concern. (…) Only a political solution will be able to ensure a lasting peace,” concludes the Quai d’Orsay.