RT Howard is the author of ‘Power and Glory: France’s Secret Wars with Britain and America 1945-2016’.
The government is facing growing pressure to curb its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which is fighting a bitter war in neighbouring Yemen. But will any embargo on arms exports, or the imposition of further controls, really alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people?
At first sight, the case for any such embargo is compelling. There is convincing evidence that the Saudis, like their opponents, are deploying brutal and ruthless tactics that involves, according to a UN report, the ‘widespread and systematic’ targeting of civilians.
About 3,700 innocent people have already killed and around three million have become refugees since March last year, when then Saudi-led coalition, comprised mainly of Arab armies, began its campaign to destroy the newly-emergent Houthi regime and restore Abd-Rabbu Hadi as president.
Since the war began in earnest, Britain has sold around $6 billion worth of munitions to Saudi Arabia, rendering the kingdom our most valuable arms markets. In particular, the Saudis have lavished spending on the purchase of warplanes and air-to-surface missiles.
The government claims that it ‘takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously’ and refuses export licences if those arms ‘might be used for internal repression or… serious violation of international humanitarian law’. It is obliged to do this under the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty, which Britain signed and ratified in 2014.
But, as a recent report by a parliamentary select committee concluded, these ‘assessments’ are not open to public scrutiny. As a result, it is far from clear why so many arms sales have been authorised to a customer that has an increasingly damning track record.
Anti-arms trade lobbyists are also fighting hard in the law courts, seeking a judicial review against the Government. They are arguing that the exports violate British and European laws because there is a significant chance that the recipients could use them against civilians.
But this will not do anything to alleviate the misery of the Yemeni people because any British retreat from the Saudi arms market simply creates an opportunity for a plethora of other suppliers. France, Germany and Spain have also struck highly lucrative arms deals with the Gulf States and would immediately fill any commercial void that Britain creates.
France, in particular, has shown little hesitation in satisfying Saudi’s vast and growing appetite for weapons. In August, a coalition of international NGOS Control Arms reported that the French government had sold $18 billion of arms to Riyadh last year, dwarfing Britain’s own contribution.
Nor, for the same reason, would any EU-led embargo prove any more effective.For despite its supposed withdrawal from the Middle East and its ‘pivot to Asia’, Washington has not only conducted a highly lucrative arms trade with Riyadh – selling slightly more than Britain over the past twelve months- but until August also supported the Saudi war by deploying army personnel on the ground, sharing intelligence and providing air-to-air refuelling planes.
The most obvious response is to give more substance to the 2014 treaty, which has been criticized by anti-arms trade campaigners for its lack of teeth. At present, the treaty merely obliges its signatories to mutually ‘cooperate’, ‘consult’ and ‘exchange experience’ to ensure its terms are implemented.
But it is likely to prove – at best – extremely difficult to amend the treaty to oblige signatories to allow independent international bodies to monitor how arms exports are used. There would be disagreement about the partiality of any such exporters, and about the quality of their information they use.
These considerations may explain why, only last month, Britain blocked an EU bid to set up such an enquiry, organised by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The UN’s heavy dependency on Saudi funding compound the difficulty. Allegations have been rife that, during the summer, the Saudis bribed the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, to remove their name from an official report into child casualties, claiming that the Saudi-led alliance in Yemen was responsible for most of the 1,953 children killed in the war. This list was then revised, ostensibly under ‘massive’ Saudi pressure.
Providing the ATT with the ‘teeth’ it needs is therefore a daunting challenge but there is, fortunately, a simpler and more realistic way of pressurising governments into curbing their arms sales to the coalition or to any warring party that may be breaching its terms. That tool is media pressure.
To date, the war in Yemen has been underreported, effectively closed off to the outside world by an uncooperative Saudi regime and the hostility of the Houthi rebels. However, reports and photos have filtered through from a number of independent local journalists. And it is these reports that would give compelling evidence – more compelling than ‘official investigations’ that are not based on the ground – of what is really happening on the ground.
Perhaps Western media outlets could do more to nurture these local sources of information. Ways could be found providing them with more up-to-date equipment, while their reports and photos could be better rewarded and their footage given more airtime.
Such efforts would expose any violation of international law by the Saudis, or indeed by any other warring party anywhere in the world, and Western governments would be shamed into taking action far more quickly and effectively than years of high level wrangling about revised treaty terms.