The skies of Saada are raining fire

August 26, 2016

After a week of negotiations on the implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty the states present have decided on a Trust Fund, have created working groups on universalisation and implementation, and have decided that Finland will chair the Conference of State Parties in 2017. These are important technical issues for the implementation of the treaty. Sadly however there has been no mention by states of arms transfers to states involved in the war in Yemen. An issue that lies at the heart of what the treaty is about: reducing human suffering.

By Daan Kayser

The conflict in Yemen flared up in March 2015 between the between forces loyal to the President Hadi, and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia military intervened in the conflict in support of President Hadi. The conflict hardly gets media attention, yet it is one of the largest humanitarian disasters at the moment. Already in 2015 the head of the Red Cross said: “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.” Currently there are 3 million Yemenis that have been displaced and 81 % of the population, or over 21 million people, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Noor who used to run a medical clinic in Saada Governorate, in north Yemen, that was destroyed. Noor said: “The skies of Saada are raining fire on us every day. We are alive, but only until we die – senselessly – like the thousands that already beat us there.”

The bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia has received much international criticism. In January of this year a UN report highlighted “widespread and systematic” targeting of Yemeni civilians and civilian infrastructure by the Saudi Arabia led coalition. Attacks “in violation of international humanitarian law including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses. After peace talks in April of this year stalled, Saudi Arabia resumed its airstrikes. Again, civilian structures are being hit, like an airstrike on a school and a potato chips factory earlier this month that reportedly killed 14 civilians. Also for the fourth time since the start of the conflict a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) supported hospital was hit by an airstrike.” In a survey Oxfam conducted among a 1,000 displaced persons 76% stated they had fled due to the airstrikes.

The Arms Trade Treaty obliges a state party to not authorise an export if there is a risk that the weapons could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law. During a side event organised by civil society, Rob Perkins from the ATT Monitor told the audience that 19 states parties and three signatories authorised or transferred weapons to Saudi Arabia in 2015, some of which are potentially in violation of obligations under the ATT. The total reported value of licenses and announced sales to Saudi Arabia in 2015 by states parties and signatories to the ATT was more than US$25 billion. France, for example, authorised 219 licenses to Saudi Arabia, including for 115 armored vehicles and 745 precision rifles. The UK issued licenses for 1 billion dollars of bombs and 1 billion dollars in aircrafts and parts. New arms sales from the US include 18,000 aircraft bombs with a value of 1 billion dollars. Some, including the Netherlands, Spain, and Flanders have taken positive steps to prevent ATT violations with additional restrictions on exports to Saudi Arabia. Switzerland has blocked arms exports to all parties of the Yemen conflict. The majority of the EU parliament in February called for a full arms embargo to Saudi Arabia due to the many international humanitarian law violations. These positive examples show that there is hope for the ATT. However for the treaty to be successful, arms transfers to conflict regions should be discussed too. If this is not possible the ATT will not be more than nice words on paper with no effect for people suffering in conflict every day. Some say patience is needed to give states time to adapt their policies. I wonder if the civilians in Yemen would agree.

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