Pressure mounts on Western powers to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia

© Mohammed Huwais, AFP | Yemenis inspect the damage following an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition in the capital Sanaa, on February 27, 2016

As a UN conference on the arms trade kicked off in Geneva on Monday, France, Britain and the United States came under fire from NGOs for selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is waging a controversial campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.


The Swiss city is hosting the second conference on the UN-backed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which came into force in 2014 to lay out new rules governing the international arms trade. Advocacy groups are urging signatories to keep their commitments under the treaty, which requires states to block arms deals if there are grounds for believing the weapons will be used against civilians.

Control Arms, a coalition of NGOs, called on France, Britain and the United States on Monday to halt sales to Saudi Arabia over its actions in Yemen, saying the trio was guilty of “the worst kind of hypocrisy”. All three countries have signed the treaty, though the US Congress has refused to ratify it.

By continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, which has waged a 17-month-long campaign against a Shiite Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the three Western countries “are violating [the treaty] with impunity”, said Control Arms director Anna Macdonald.

"Every day, we are seeing the devastating impact of the sale of arms and ammunition for use on civilians in Yemen,” Macdonald said in a statement, accusing the governments in Paris, London and Washington of "flouting international law in plain sight by continuing to sell billions of dollars worth of deadly weapons to Saudi Arabia".

‘Yemen is in flames’

Saudi Arabia and its regional allies have faced fierce criticism over their deadly offensive against the Houthi rebels. Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), whose Yemeni facilities have been repeatedly hit by airstrikes, has described the Saudi-led coalition bombings as “indiscriminate”.

Earlier this year, a United Nations panel investigating the Saudi-led bombing campaign sent a 51-page report to the Security Council that was leaked to the press. It uncovered “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets in violation of international humanitarian law.

Arms sales France’s new El Dorado, but at what cost?

In February, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said Security Council members such as France had a duty to stop the flow of weapons to Riyadh-led forces and help secure peace.

“Yemen is in flames and coalition airstrikes in particular continue to strike schools, hospitals, mosques and civilian infrastructure,” Ban said. “We need states that are party to [the] arms trade treaty to set an example in fulfilling one of the treaty’s main purposes – controlling arms flows to actors that may use them in ways that breach international humanitarian law.”

ATT violations

Brian Wood, the head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, said the UN panel’s findings established beyond any doubt that weapons were indeed being used against civilians in Yemen.

“Targets of Saudi bombings include markets, schools, hospitals and gatherings such as weddings,” he told FRANCE 24. “So there are civilian casualties involved and states should suspend the sale of weapons that might be used in Yemen – by that I mean aircraft that can fly this distance and can deliver bombs, for example.”

Wood said the timing of arms deals was also significant in determining whether the ATT had been violated. “Our starting point is March 2015, when the fighting in Yemen escalated,” he said, citing the UK’s decision to sell air-to-surface ammunition to Saudi Arabia late last year as a flagrant violation of the treaty.

Regarding France’s sale of multi-purpose helicopters to Riyadh, agreed in June 2015, Wood said the deal was “possibly illegal” if the evidence showed that the hardware might be used in Yemen for aerial bombing.

More generally, he dismissed claims by Western governments that they had improved the vetting of arms deals amid the worsening conflict in Yemen, saying: “We’ve seen no evidence that supports the thesis according to which there has been a change in arms trade with Saudi Arabia since 2015.”

Preventive, not punitive

Critics of the ATT have described the landmark treaty as largely toothless, noting that there is no mechanism in place to sanction violations by signatory states. “It’s a bit like asking a crime suspect to be his own police officer,” Wood remarked, lamenting the lack of transparency and peer review.

Benoît Muracciole, the president of French arms watchdog ASER (Action sécurité éthique républicaines), said peer review was intended as one of the ATT’s key pillars. “The treaty is preventive, not punitive,” he explained in an interview with FRANCE 24. “It relies on pressure from other states and civil society.”

France's salesman: selling subs and jets

But Muracciole said NGOs in France lacked the financial resources and expertise required to provide adequate oversight. “There is a cultural difference compared to the UK, where independent research bodies receive financial support from the state,” he said.

ASER’s president called for a suspension of French arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia while their potential use in the Yemeni conflict is investigated. He noted that the use of French hardware – Sherpa armed vehicles – by the Egyptian regime to crack down on protesters “in violation of human rights and European Union rules” had already been widely documented.

Dealing with strongmen

France has been singled out as the chief purveyor of arms to the Saudi regime in 2015. Control Arms said in a report this month that Paris authorised $18 billion (€16 billion) in weapons sales to Riyadh last year, far more than the United States ($5.9 billion) and Britain ($4.0 billion) – figures disputed by both Wood and Muracciole.

“The figure for France is taken from a parliamentary report that includes both authorised sales and cases where French companies have simply been granted a license to negotiate,” said Muracciole, though adding that there was little doubt France was part of a trio of top vendors.

The French government has cultivated a close rapport with both the Saudi regime and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in recent years, strengthening Paris’s credentials as a reliable partner at a time of perceived American withdrawal from the region.

The strategy has proved lucrative for French arms dealers. Last year, Sisi became the first foreign buyer of the Rafale fighter jet, the pride of France’s armaments industry. Months later the Egyptian president agreed to buy the two Mistral-class warships whose sale to Russia was cancelled amid the Ukraine crisis.

Far from concealing its dealings with Middle Eastern strongmen, France’s unpopular Socialist government has trumpeted the string of contracts as a boon at a time of sluggish economic growth and record-high unemployment – much to the dismay of human rights groups.

“Where is the logic in selling arms to regimes that crushed the Arab Spring and are liable to use them against civilians?” Muracciole asked, adding that France's arms dealings were playing into the hands of its foes at a time of heightened terrorist threat.

“This is precisely what religious fundamentalists are looking for to fuel their anti-French propaganda.”

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning