Explosive violence in YemenArms exports examined

UK arms exports to Yemen

Yemen: Country overview
The Republic of Yemen, located in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman, has an estimated population of 27,5 million. The country is relatively new, established in 1990 after a unification of southern and northern Yemen. Abdullah Saleh had ruled the country since its independence, but he stepped down in the wake of national uprisings in 2012. Ever since, the country has found itself in political turmoil, one that led in 2015 to the intervention of a Saudi-led coalition who fought in favour of the interim President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi against the Houthi minority, a group that had gained control of the capital of Sanaa in late 2014. The conflict has had enormous consequences for the civilian population; millions have fled, and thousands have been killed.

As of 2018, Yemen has neither signed nor ratified the Arms Trade Treaty.

How many licences for the sale of arms to Yemen has the UK issued between 2008 and 2017?
The number of licences awarded for weaponry sent to the Yemeni government from the UK was until 2015 rather insignificant, with a ‘peak’ of 22 in 2014. However, since 2016, there has been a sharp rise in the number of approved arms licences, with 72 and 131 in respectively 2016 and 2017. This is a 700% rise compared to the two previous years and constitutes 78% of the total 259 licences in the reported ten-year period.

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?
The value of the weaponry exported to Yemen has been low and has only one time reached more than the £1 million-mark once when it in 2014 reached £1.6m.  In total, from 2008 to 2017, £4.2m worth of exports were sold to Yemen by the UK, with a dip in recent years.

What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain is selling to Yemen?
Whilst the data given above is just for military exports (single-use), when you consider both military and dual-use exports (dual-licences are permits to control all the material, software and technology that can be used for civil purposes like humanitarian aid, but also for military goals) the top ten export items requiring licences are as below.
Yemen is in the grip of a civil war, so it is perhaps no surprise the most frequent type of weapons sold to the country from UK companies has been that of small arms ammunition. The problem with exporting to Yemen is obvious – the state barely functions, and rival militias vie for power. Any arms sent to the central government have a high possibility of either being used indiscriminately in the war or ending up in the hands of paramilitary or terrorist groups.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2017

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?
The Yemen conflict has generated the deaths of more than 10.000 civilians since the outbreak of war in March 2015, although the actual number is likely to be significantly higher. The conflict has led to what has been referred by the UN to as the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis, devastated Yemen’s infrastructure and economy, leaving at least 8.719 people wounded, 7 million on the brink of famine, and an estimated 540.000 suffering from cholera.

The armed conflict has led to the forced displacement of more than 3.27 million civilians and nearly 21.2 million people (80% of the population) are relying on various forms of humanitarian assistance. The human suffering is attributed to all actors involved in the conflict, and both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have committed acts amounting to war crimes.

As UK arms sale is delivered to President Hadi – who, despite the turmoil, is still recognised as the country’s legitimate leader – this report will focus on those violations committed by his forces, also called the Popular Resistance and the Saudi-led coalition who acts on behalf of Hadi.

Several pieces of evidence, for instance, show how the Saudi-led coalition has been using the internationally banned cluster munitions, which exposes civilians due to their indiscriminate and highly imprecise nature. Yet, meaningful investigations into the Popular Resistance and the coalition’s alleged violations still remain. On the ground, the Hadi government is accused of violating a range of human rights, from employing child soldiers, to carrying out unlawful detentions and committing torture.

According to Human Rights Watch, Yemen’s human rights situation was deteriorating even before the conflict erupted. The regime, for example, responded to political unrest in the south by undertaking arbitrary arrests and using excessive force against non-violent protesters, acts that all contributed to undermining the rule of law.

UK arms sale to President Hadi is concerning for several reasons. First of all, Hadi’s forces are accused of imposing severe harm to the civilian population, for instance by cracking down on human rights defenders’ and journalists’ freedom of speech. Moreover, due to the government’s poor control of the country, the UK cannot be certain where exported arms will end up and for what purpose they will be employed. This is a matter of concern as the UK, as an arms exporter, is responsible for not aiding or enabling human rights violations.

Finally, the arms sale is a cause of concern as it strengthens the Hadi/Saudi military alliance’s military capabilities. Due to the high civilian toll and indiscriminate targeting of civilians attributable to the coalition, further arms exports should be halted until the military campaign changes character and possible misconduct have been subject to meaningful investigations.

What has the British government said about these concerns?
The British government has admitted that the human rights situation there is dire.  It said in 2017: “Human rights abuses in Yemen continued on a large scale in the first half of 2016, including intense conflict affecting the civilian population; the use of child soldiers; attacks on journalists and human rights defenders; intimidation of humanitarian workers; arbitrary detentions; and destruction of civilian infrastructure.”

It noted further at the UN: “The UK is deeply concerned by the deplorable human rights situation in Yemen where abuses and violation continue on a large scale.”

Despite such stated concerns, in the period from 2008-2016, the UK sold £9m of weapons to Yemen. The ostensible reason is that the UK was supporting a legitimate government fighting an insurgency, framed as an Iranian proxy. Moreover, Yemen houses several ISIS and al-Qaeda cells, why it is also a UK interest to support the Yemeni government fighting these.

The UK government is sparse on its comments addressing arms sales to President Hadi, but former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said last year that UK involved voluntarily on such a large scale because of the high demand and  “that the UK’s involvement in international arms trade could strengthen alliances with other countries.”

Again, it is worrying that the UK does not apply the highest standards when it comes to arms export and its international commitments to protect civilians that follow, despite it subscribed the Consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria.

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Yemeni government have committed since 2011?

Events in 2010
Many serious human rights violations were reported in Yemen this year. The security forces were accused of using excessive force against non-violent protesters and carrying out arbitrary arrests. Tribal clashes, including with the Houthis in the north, caused much harm and compliance with the laws of war were more or less absent.

Finally, civilians were reported killed and injured in the regime’s fight to shut down terrorist cells in the south. And intense military operations against al-Qaida in the Abyan and Shabwa provinces reportedly displaced thousands of families.

Events in 2011
As the Arab Spring erupted throughout the Middle East, uprisings in Yemen caused mass allegations of security forces use of excessive violence, that in many cases killed hundreds of Yemenis. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 250 civilians were killed by government forces during protests, including at least 35 children. During a protest in Sanaa, snipers reportedly fired against the crowd, killing at least 45 people. In addition, Central Security and other government forces shot directly at rock-throwing protesters in Sanaa, killing about 30.

The then-president Saleh government hit down hard on human rights defenders and journalists and freedom of expression was severely restricted. The regime reportedly attacked, harassed and threatened those who reported about the regime’s attacks on peaceful demonstrators.

Events in 2012
This year was marked by widespread arbitrary detention, attacks on free speech and assembly, and the deployment of child soldiers. The government, who now was headed by Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, continued to attack demonstrators with excessive force, leading to arbitrary and unlawful killings. This was especially true against demonstrators across Yemen demanding political reforms, and was particularly the case for the armed Southern Movement, who fought for independence in the south.

Many Yemenis were reportedly subjected to the government’s widespread monitoring of e-mails and other online platforms, especially those used to plan demonstrations. Many journalists and activists reported how they had been harassed by security forces who had spied on their online activities.

Events in 2013
In May, the Republic Guards, an elite formation of the Yemeni army under Hadi, allegedly used antipersonnel landmines in the north-eastern part of Sanaa. The mines were said to have killed at least one person and injured 14 others, including nine children. The Ministry of Defence set up a committee to investigate the incident, but six months later an assessment team had yet to be sent to the area. A final, unsatisfactory, report was released in 2014.

The Hadi government continued to restrict, especially journalists’ and bloggers’, freedom of speech. In the first six months of 2013, a Yemeni organization that monitors press freedom, recorded 144 allegations against 205 media members, including harassment, confiscations, politicized prosecutions, enforced disappearances, and killings.

Events in 2014
The Hadi-government continued to harass and arrest journalists and bloggers. As of the first six months, 148 attacks were recorded, with the government being accused of committing almost half of these. Generally, the government failed to condemn such attacks and investigations and consequently, convictions remained absent.

Events in 2015
Upon request by ousted President Hadi, a major coalition of Arab states, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, was launched to fight the Houthis. The coalition has since conducted several indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes across, especially northern Yemen. For instance, on March 15, a Saudi-led airstrike killed 97 civilians, including 25 children, after a busy market was targeted. A similar incident took place some months later; on May 12, a coalition airstrike targeted a marketplace in Zabid, in western Yemen, that led to the death of at least 60 civilians. Funerals and weddings have also been subject to the coalition’s airstrikes, leading to hundreds killed or wounded. The Hadi government continued its close cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition’s aerial campaign, while Hadi’s ground forces also continued to fight the Houthis, often with civilian consequences.

Events in 2016
The Hadi-requested military campaign against the Houthis continued with a high level of intensity in 2016. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimated that,  since the launch of the Saudi-led coalition in March last year, at least 4,125 civilians had been killed and 7,207 wounded. The OHCHR attributed most of the killings to the Arab coalition. On the ground, the Hadi government took unlawful measures into use, and it was reported that Hadi forces, like the Houthis, were responsible for employing child soldiers. Finally, the Hadi government did not make sufficient efforts to look into war crimes allegations committed by themselves or its Arab allies.

Events in 2017
The situation in the war torn-country continued to deteriorate and was by the UN described as “the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe.” The Hadi government continued to wield very little control in the Houthi-controlled northern Yemen, while southern Yemen also saw turmoil with the Southern Resistance movements claiming independence and active ISIS and al-Qaeda cells.

Together with the Saudi-led coalition, the Hadi forces continued it military campaign the Houthis, where civilian facilities were targeted by the coalition, including health care centres, schools, hospitals and residential buildings. By November, it was estimated that at least 5,295 civilians had been killed and 8,873 wounded since 2015, the majority by coalition airstrikes. The actual number is however expected to be significantly higher. Moreover, the Hadi forces reportedly carried out illegal detentions, enforced disappearances and torture. In most cases, this occurred in the South where cooperation with the UAE was carried out during several counter-terrorism operations.

Lastly, the Hadi government made no significant efforts to investigate the allegations of human rights violations committing by his forces or the Saudi-led coalition. Hadi also prevented international media and UN personnel from entering Yemen, hindering media coverage of the war.

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Yemen.  Human rights abuses continue.

For more from this investigation please go here