Authority turns blind eye as SA sells arms to countries suspected of Yemen war crimes
ASaudi Arabian-led coalition has bombed and blockaded Yemen into famine. Independent estimates put the total number of Yemenis killed in the campaign to restore former Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to power at nearly 50,000 since the Saudi-led coalition attacks began in March 2015. Devastating airstrikes on hospitals, schools and markets have not returned Hadi to power, but have unleashed what the UN describes as the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis.
A coalition blockade on Yemen is starving the country of imports of food, medicine and fuel. Without fuel, water cannot be pumped from boreholes. Unsanitary conditions have led to outbreaks of disease, including the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Indiscriminate bombing of hospitals, and shortages of medical supplies, have closed half of Yemen’s health facilities.
Despite the humanitarian destruction that the war has brought, several countries — including SA — have been eager to supply Saudi Arabia and its allies with weapons for a campaign characterised by repeated violations of international humanitarian law. These include war crimes, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. South African arms companies, while not the primary suppliers in the conflict, have also been cashing in — becoming complicit in serious human rights violations.
According to the national conventional arms control committee (NCACC), which oversees SA’s arms exports, SA sold more than R3bn worth of arms and ammunition, armoured vehicles and surveillance and military technology to the coalition’s most actively warring members, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in 2016 and 2017.
Independent international relations strategist Zeenat Adam reports that SA’s state-owned weapons manufacturer, Denel, sold the UAE at least 1,600 Umbani guided bombs for Mirage jets in 2016. At last year’s Dubai Airshow, the UAE announced that it had ordered surveillance drones worth R180m from Denel. Rheinmetall Denel Munition — the South African venture of German arms giant Rheinmetall — is preparing exports to the UAE of tens of thousands of mortar and artillery shells and more than 12,000 bombs.
NCACC protocols stipulate that end users cannot re-export items to another country without SA’s explicit consent — but Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been doing exactly that; South African weapons have turned up in Yemen’s conflict for years.
In June 2011 — long before the Saudi coalition had officially entered the Yemen conflict — a Reuters photograph showed Yemeni soldiers sitting atop a South African Ratel armoured vehicle. When asked in parliament by DA MP David Maynier how the Ratels ended up in Yemen, NCACC boss Jeff Radebe said he did not know. Maynier asked Radebe whether the NCACC was investigating a possible violation of the end-user certificate. Radebe said he’d “find out”. Radebe’s “investigations” were not fruitful.
In July 2015, TV footage showed a Denel Dynamics Seeker II unmanned aerial vehicle being shot down over Yemen. An identification plate on the UAE-owned drone, stating “Made in South Africa Carl Zeiss Optronics Pty Ltd”, was clearly visible.
The NCACC is turning a blind eye to mounting evidence of Saudi and Emirati breaches of its own regulations. In doing so, it is violating South African and international statutes. SA’s National Conventional Arms Control Act states that the NCACC must “avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights”. Under the UN arms trade treaty — which SA ratified in 2014 — it has an obligation to halt the supply of weapons if these are likely to be used for serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.
The Yemen Data Project reveals that since 2015, nearly a third of coalition air raids hit civilian sites such as schools and hospitals. A recent UN report found that parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law, many of which may amount to war crimes.
Germany and Norway have suspended exports of weapons to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, citing the risk of misuse in Yemen. Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium’s Walloon regional authority have denied licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the same reason. If these countries have recognised the risk of potential complicity in war crimes, why hasn’t SA?
The Saudi-led coalition bombed a cholera treatment centre in June, though Doctors Without Borders had shared the centre’s coordinates with it at least 12 times. On August 9, a bus taking children on an excursion was blown up by the coalition, killing 40 children.
At what point will the NCACC say “enough” and stop arming countries committing war crimes in Yemen?