This week French armed forces minister Florence Parly publicly stated that French weapons have not been used against civilians in Yemen after leaked intelligence published by investigative website Disclose showed that French arms, including tanks and laser-guided missile systems sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were believed to have been used in the Yemeni war against civilians. Prior to the release of this report, originally dated September 25, 2018, the French Government had maintained that French arms sold to Saudi Arabia were being used purely for defensive purposes along the border. This information raises new questions about whether the French have been selling the Saudi coalition weapons in contravention of international law.
Human Rights Watch has contended that they have been, pointing to the 2008 European Union Common Position on arms exports as evidence. The position in question, Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP, which went into effect December 8, 2008, states that European countries should “deny a [weapons] export license if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law.” Because this position is codified as a treaty in European Union legal codes, it has universal force within the EU and should act as the basis of actions regarding the arms trade for all European nations.
Expanding on this earlier EU treaty, the 2013 UN Arms Trade Treaty states that “a State Party shall not authorize any transfer of conventional arms…if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in…attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party”. Further, it states that if there is an overriding risk of the undermining of peace or of the commitment or facilitation of serious violations of international humanitarian law or human rights law, that the exporting state should not authorize the export. France ratified this treaty on April 2, 2014, meaning that if they have violated any of these principles, they are fully liable, both under international law and under EU law.
There have been significant concerns raised by multiple actors regarding Saudi actions in Yemen, with Germany establishing a unilateral arms embargo against Saudi Arabia in October 2018, which was recently extended until September of this year, in response to evidence of humanitarian and human rights abuses by coalition forces. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a 41-page report written by the Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen in late 2018 which strongly suggests that the coalition had perpetuated, and continues to perpetuate, crimes and violations under international law. There are grounds to believe that the coalition “may have conducted attacks in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution that may amount to war crimes”.
UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein stated in March 2016 that “it would seem that the coalition is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together, virtually all as a result of air strikes”. Despite the creation of a Joint Incidents Assessment Team and attempts to improve accountability, Hussein argues that Saudi efforts to address these potential violations of international humanitarian law continue to be woefully insufficient. Evidence has emerged that the assessment team has consistently failed to properly investigate allegations of airstrikes killing civilians. Further, the coalition lacks clear rules of engagement regarding compliance to international humanitarian law, meaning that it tends to respond to criticism in the aftermath of civilian casualties rather than working proactively to address potential dangers to civilians. This is reason to believe that abuses will continue. It is especially easy to draw this conclusion when, on March 26th, an alleged Saudi airstrike struck a hospital run by Save the Children, leading to civilian casualties, including the deaths of four children.
The Saudi coalition has also engaged in the systematic bombing of food and water resources in Houthi-controlled areas. Research on patterns of bombing in Yemen reveals that in the “first 17 months of the Saudi-led bombing campaign there was “strong evidence that coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution” in areas controlled by the Houthis and allied forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh”. Further, in February 2016, reports indicated that Saudi planes bombed and destroyed a reservoir that served as a source of drinking water for thirty thousand people. Similar actions in 2018 show a consistent pattern of behaviour. The Protection of Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the Civilian Population Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 states that “it is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs [and] drinking water installation and supplies and irrigation works”. Thus, Saudi actions in these instances reflect another clear violation of international law.
Despite clear evidence of violations of international law by Saudi coalition members in Yemen, it remains unlikely that arms sales will slow. This is particularly apparent because the German embargo’s renewal included an exception which would allow Germany to continue to sell systems jointly developed with other countries to Saudi Arabia and its allies. They have already approved a serious of arms sales to the Saudi and UAE groups. Coupled with France’s refusal, at least initially, to curtail its arms sales, this fact suggests that political and economic interests will continue to take precedent over international law, even within “progressive” institutions like European Union.
Evan Schleicher is the Editorial Intern for the International Enforcement Law Reporter. He is currently an MA candidate in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University, focusing on transnational security and humanitarian issues.