Arms sales under the current conditions observed in Yemen are prohibited by international and regional laws, as they are likely to cause serious breaches of international humanitarian law. In spite of this, the UK and Italy have recently decided to resume the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, continuing to protect and promote the exchange of weapons regardless of the devastating and widely reported human cost.
European Union Member States committed themselves in the late 90s to a common set of regional rules controlling exports of military devices, with the aim of addressing and preventing the effects of an unregulated or poorly regulated arms trade on conflicts, security, regional stability and, explicitly, human suffering. With the European Union Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, which later become the Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP, EU States specifically agreed to respect international obligations and human rights in countries of final destination. This means, for instance, not issuing export licenses when a proposed export may be used for internal repression or in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law, or when serious violations have already been reported by the UN or EU competent bodies.
Yet there have always been differences in how EU Member States interpret these rules according to national decision-making processes and varying political and economic interests, resulting in aerial bombs and missiles being sold to even the most notorious perpetrators of human rights abuses.
These differences are particularly evident in the case of the escalation of the conflict in Yemen, as well as symbolic not only of how arms transfers from Western, allegedly democratic States fuel serious human rights violations in third, often developing, countries, but also of how States disregard their common international obligations on the basis of national discretion. While some EU States like the Netherlands and Germany have halted or restricted exports of military hardware to the Saudi Arabian-led coalition actively engaged in the Yemeni conflict given concerns related to both international humanitarian and human rights law, others have continued—or recently resumed—the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) won a case in 2019 in the UK against the government’s licensing of arms to Saudi Arabia, which led to a brief pause in arms sales. However, the UK government announced in July 2020 that it would resume the licensing process, and a London’s High Court ruling just days ago sided in favour of the resumption of the sales—a ruling based on closed evidence, and a rejection of CAAT campaigners’ request for a judicial review of the government’s decision.
In Italy, a similar complaint was filed back in 2018 by NGOs Rete Italiana per il Disarmo, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), and Mwatana for Human Rights, against the national authority for licensing military exports (UAMA) and arms manufacturer RWM Italia. As in the British case, the complaint was based on governmental failure to comply with national and international standards governing arms exports, because materials supplied to the Saudi capital of Riyadh were used to commit serious breaches of international humanitarian law, but the Italian case also referred to the other coalition leader: the United Arab Emirates.
June 2019, indeed, saw the Italian parliament decide to suspend military exports to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, citing its commitment to restoring peace in Yemen and protecting human rights. Nevertheless, this turned out to be a temporary exception, and what should be the status quo—the protection of people’s lives and rights over the profits of a few—is out of reach today. Four years later, the new far-right Italian government has lifted the embargo on both of these Gulf States, deciding to restore arms sales to the UAE in April 2023 and to Saudi Arabia the following month. According to Giorgia Meloni’s government, “the reasons behind these measures have now disappeared”, and now the export of bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia and the UAE comply with Italy’s foreign and defence policy. But nothing should disappear during a war, especially in the context of ensuring the accountability of those responsible for the commission of war crimes.
Since 2015, Yemen Data Project has recorded at least 25,054 airstrikes in the country that are only attributable to the Saudi-led coalition. This is because the Houthi armed group, which is the coalition’s main opponent in the conflict, does not have an air force at all. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, maimed, and displaced due to indiscriminate aerial attacks made with Western military supplies and thanks to the impunity from which the European arms industry has benefited for years. Arms should not have been sold to parties to the conflict in the first place, but now that a truce continues to deliver beyond its expiration, and local actors are demonstrating a willingness to engage constructively, the restoration of the arms trade is an even poorer decision.
Yemeni civilians are still suffering the consequences of the accumulation and misuse of arms during almost a decade of war, and their country remains the site of one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. Despite unprecedented signs of hope for a possible end to the conflict, a recent reduction in hostility levels does not imply a decrease in the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis, as the country and its population have been comprehensively embroiled in eight years of a brutal armed conflict, compounded by economic collapse, natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of history’s largest cholera epidemics.
Even when there’s a break in the fighting, the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen rages on, as it surely will until the country has the time and resources to address the crisis.
Continuing reports of violence across the frontlines underscore the need for a formal ceasefire. Access to basic services, safety, and security remains out of reach for millions of people, with 80 per cent of the Yemeni population still struggling to find food. With the country’s health system completely collapsed, a woman dies every two hours during pregnancy or childbirth from preventable causes. The Western arms trade has affected, and will continue to affect, a wide range of the fundamental human rights of the Yemeni people, from the rights of individuals to life, liberty, health, education, and security to freedom of movement, thought, assembly, and expression. The UK and Italy’s renewed military exports will, in breach of international and regional laws, prolong and aggravate the extremely harmful conditions in Yemen.
Basic needs remain unmet for an alarming number of individuals, while the appeal for Yemen is 80 per cent unfunded. The consequences of the horrific international airstrike campaign aimed at rolling back Houthi territorial gains are still vivid, and protection systems, independent investigative mechanisms, and political stability are urgently needed—not more missiles and aerial bombs, stripping the flesh off a country attempting to stitch itself up and finally grasp peace.