Renewed hope for Yemen as more countries halt arms transfers to Saudi-led coalition

Just one month into 2021, the US and Italy have announced their intention to halt arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for use in Yemen. These welcome decisions come after repeated warnings by civil society organizations, UN agencies and other stakeholders that arms sales to the warring parties have fueled the conflict, contributed to hundreds of violations of international humanitarian law and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. In fact, in its latest report, the UN Panel of Eminent Experts on Yemen stressed that one of the three key factors contributing to the crisis in Yemen is the “continuous and widespread human rights and international humanitarian law violations, with impunity.”

Within weeks of President Biden’s inauguration, the Biden Administration temporarily suspended US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as part of an internal review of trade agreements signed by the Trump administration. During the Trump presidency, the US approved arms sales to Saudi-led coalition worth billions of dollars, making the US the primary suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 2019. Policymakers and civil society organizations within the US as well as members of the international community welcomed Biden’s decision as a much-anticipated indication that there may be an end in sight for the US’s irresponsible arms transfers.

At the same time, Italy took even stronger measures to halt irresponsible arms transfers for use in Yemen. On January 29th, the Italian government permanently revoked export licenses for aerial bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, cancelling a shipment of over 12,700 bombs. This historic decision is the first of its kind in the 30 years since the Italian Law 185 on Arms Exports came into force. After years of advocacy to stop arms transfers from Italy to the Saudi-led coalition, civil society organizations, including Control Arms member Rete Italiana Pace e Disarmo, enthusiastically welcome this groundbreaking development.

Also this year, Norway took an important step towards reviewing its arms export decisions, after the Office of the Auditor General declared the Norwegian government’s arms export controls to be “inadequate.” In a report published on 02 February 2021, the Office of the Auditor General warned that the risk assessment carried out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not thorough enough, prompting it to give the second highest level of criticism possible to Norwegian exports to the UAE. These findings echo calls from civil society, including Control Arms member Save the Children, who have raised concerns about Norway’s exports of weapons, military equipment and dual-use goods to the Saudi-led coalition for use in Yemen, worth more than $90 million dollars. 

The diversion of arms and their illicit and unregulated transfers to the conflicting parties have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. In its 2019 report, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen cautioned that “third States have a specific influence on the parties to the conflict in Yemen, (…) including by means of intelligence and logistic support, as well as arms transfers.” Arms transfers to the Saudi-led coalition and diversion of arms to the Houthi forces have contributed to loss of life among civilians, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the breakdown of basic services, including access to healthcare and clean water during two major health crises in Yemen – the cholera outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Even with this recent progress toward ending arms transfers that support the warring parties in Yemen, there is work yet to be done to support the momentum led by the US and Italy. 

A number of countries, including the UK and Canada, resumed their arms transfers to the Saudi-led coalition in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to renewed pressure from civil society organizations to halt arms transfers that are in breach of national and international obligations, including the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). While the UK, suspended its arms sales to Saudi Arabia in June 2019 after the Court of Appeal ruled that the related export decisions were “irrational and unlawful,” in July 2020, the government resumed arms transfers to the Saudi-led coalition, following the UK Department of Trade’s conclusion that the exports did not pose a clear risk of international humanitarian law violations. Similarly, the Canadian government suspended its arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but has since resumed these sales in 2020. 

The temporary freeze of arms sales by the US and the landmark suspension of arms export license in Italy mark a turning point and may inspire other countries to follow their example. Though the halting of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE cannot end the crisis in Yemen, it can serve to limit the impact of the conflict on civilians. The decisions taken by the US and Italy are important steps in creating the conditions for a sustainable peace process. Similar tough measures by the UK, Canada, Norway and other exporting countries are critical in putting an end to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. 

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