Saudi killing of civilians is in violation of global arms treaty, critics say

Boys stand around the wreckage of a vehicle at the site of a car bomb attack next to a Shiite mosque in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Saudi Arabia, in its aim to support the government of Yemen against rebel forces, is killing a lot of innocent civilians, and critics want to put a stop to this using the lingo of a global arms treaty.

Many contend these indiscriminate Saudi attacks on non-combatants constitute war crimes. This week, critics of Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen are trying to use the second conference of the Arms Trade Treaty to urge all countries to cease selling arms to the Saudi government, especially the U.K. and U.S.

“The proliferation of arms and ammunition facilitates violations of international humanitarian law and of human rights law, including acts of terrorism and sexual and gender-based violence,” said Christine Beerli, Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), at the conference.

“It fuels a never-ending spiral of violence that leads to protracted armed conflicts. In most of the countries where the ICRC works – be it Central African Republic or Iraq, Libya or Yemen, to name but a few – we continuously witness first-hand the terrible consequences of weapons being used against the very people whom the law is designed to protect – civilian men, women and children.”

More than 80 countries are a part of the treaty, which bans the sale of weapons if they are to be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. The very same countries who touted the agreement when it was signed in 2014 as a way to reduce violence around the world are violating the treaty, say critics.

The airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have emerged as the focal point for advocates. Since 2015, Saudi fighter jets have been bombing areas in Yemen they believe are supportive of the Houthi rebels, often also killing thousands of uninvolved civilians. International condemnations poured on the coalition after a school was targeted, killing ten young children and injuring dozens more.

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Earlier, a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders – which said it had informed the Saudi government of its location and was given safe clearance to operate – was struck leaving more than a dozen dead. As a result of this latest attack and other prior attacks on facilities it supported, the medical aid group announced it was pulling out of part of Yemen due to extreme safety concerns.

While the Saudis are in the driver’s seat of the coalition, Western countries are providing the fuel. The U.S. sold nearly $6 billion in arms to the Saudi government in 2015. France made $18 billion in sales, and the U.K. sold $4 billion to the country last year. Those weapons are the ones being used to kill innocent people in Yemen. The attacks exacerbate an already dangerous situation for Yemenis stuck between a civil war fought by Houthi rebels and government forces.

“The U.K. government is in denial and disarray over its arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign in Yemen,” said Penny Lawrence, Deputy Chief Executive of Oxfam Great Britain, at the conference held this week in Geneva. “It has misled its own parliament about its oversight of arms sales and its international credibility is in jeopardy as it commits to action on paper but does the opposite in reality. How can the government insist that others abide by a treaty it helped set up if it flagrantly ignores it?”

The problem is not just in Yemen. Arms from European countries and the U.S. are helping Egypt crack down on its citizens and arming soldiers in South Sudan who have callously attacked civilians. In addition to adhering to the treaty, advocates want greater transparency regarding arms deals that are made. They argue that it can help hold countries accountable for treaty violations.

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“The best way to make states more accountable and ensure such deals do not go ahead is by ensuring all arms transfers are made public. Full and open reporting is vital to the successful implementation of the treaty and is the only way to drag the arms trade out of the shadows,” said Anna Macdonald, director of the advocacy group Control Arms, in a statement.

In addition to greater transparency, Amnesty International called for countries to make end-use guarantees that weapons sold will be used with respect to international laws and human rights. It looks to the fact that the U.S. and U.K. sold arms to the Saudis when it was clear weapons were being used to kill civilians. Such guarantees may help prevent the misuse of arms and from them being sold on to other groups that may violate rights agreements made at the initial sale.

Oxfam goes a step further. It argues that arms sales to Saudi Arabia by the U.K. government should be suspended because of the lack of guarantee that the arms are not being used in ways that break international human rights and humanitarian law. The inability to assess whether the coalition is violating international laws should stop sales in their tracks. Not doing so is a violation of multiple international and European treaties, argues Oxfam.

“U.K. arms and military support are fueling a brutal war in Yemen, harming the very people the Arms Trade Treaty is designed to protect. Schools, hospitals and homes have been bombed in contravention of the rules of war,” said Lawrence.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.