OPEN SECRETS REPORT

Exposed: South Africa’s role in Yemeni civil conflict’s humanitarian crisis

By Marianne Thamm 3 March 2021

Yemeni soldiers on an army vehicle patrol a street amid strict security measures in Sana'a, Yemen, 28 November 2013. (Photo: EPA / YAHYA ARHAB)

Weapons produced in South Africa are awash in Yemen and being used by numerous parties in that war, says a report by Open Secrets.

Marianne Thamm

Since the outbreak six years ago of the bitter regionalised war in Yemen resulting in a desperate humanitarian crisis, South African arms companies, including Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM), have profited handsomely from the sale of weapons to parties central to the conflict.

In doing so RDM may be guilty of contributing to gross human rights violations in Yemen, a small republic in the southern Arabian Peninsula.

This according to an investigation by NPO Open Secrets titled “Profiting from Misery — South Africa’s war crimes in Yemen”. The report is to be released on 3 March 2021 during a webinar with Daily Maverick which can be attended virtually at noon.


The report reveals that when civil war broke out in Yemen in early 2015, South African arms companies exported weapons worth R2.81-billion to Saudi Arabia, and weapons worth R4.74-billion to the UAE. Both countries are involved in the conflict.

“These exports include mortars and mortar shells, artillery guns and shells, ammunition, armoured combat vehicles and software for various types of electronic warfare. Much of this materiel has likely been used as part of the Saudi and UAE offensive in Yemen, with devastating consequences for the civilian population.”

Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM) was requested by Open Secrets investigators Michael Marchant, Zen Mathe, Caryn Dolley and Hennie van Vuuren to respond to specific charges and findings, but declined to do so, specifically with regard to munitions used in an attack on the Yemini strategic port city of Hodeidah in 2020. 

Codenamed Operation Golden Victory, the Saudi-led attack paid little heed to warnings by humanitarian agencies of “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” in that 80% of food and aid to Yemen was channelled through the port. Water supply was also disrupted by the strike.

The report reveals that two of the vehicles in the convoy which attacked the port were identified as South African G6 Rhinos. 

According to Denel Land Systems the G6 Rhino as a “155mm self-propelled Gun-Howitzer… a battle-proven, highly mobile, fully protected wheeled self-propelled gun with ultra-quick reaction and a firing range of more than 50km.”

“It is clear that weapons produced in South Africa, likely by RDM and other companies, are awash in Yemen and being used by numerous different parties in that conflict,” the report states.

The Open Secrets report states that RDM joins many global arms companies that have profited “from the devastation of war and the resulting misery of Yemenis”.

A Yemeni arms dealer holds a machine gun inside a weapon shop at Jahana district, east of the capital Sana’a, Yemen, 1 February 2013. (Photo: EPA / YAHYA ARHAB)

“Profiting from Misery” sets out how the Yemeni civil war officially began at the end of 2014, but has deep roots in domestic conflict going back decades.

“Like many civil conflicts, it quickly became internationalised and now involves a complex web of domestic, international and transnational groups that have shifted their conduct, allegiances and goals over time. These different groupings and the suppliers of their weapons are responsible for what has become the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent years,” write the authors. 

RDM is a joint venture between the German arms company Rheinmetall Waffe Munition GmbH which holds a 51% stake and South African state-owned arms company Denel, with a 49% holding.

That RDM supplied these munitions is confirmed by National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) reports as well as the companies’ own statements. 

RDM responded to questions by investigators about the company’s role in selling munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are leading the strikes in Yemen, that it had applied to the NCACC for all necessary permissions to export weapons from South Africa. 

The focus on RDM specifically, say the authors of the report, is because the German majority shareholder faces a ban in Germany against exporting any weapons to Saudi Arabia.

“While our investigation focuses on RDM, all roads lead back to Germany”.

South Africa’s arms regulators are legally required to prevent the export of weapons that may contribute to human rights violations or worsen conflicts, but “in this case, they have completely failed to do so”.

“Instead the South African government has bowed to the interests of the arms industry and its profits and the suffering of Yemenis has been ignored,” the report noted.

Profiting From Misery by Open Secrets

At present about 16 million people in Yemen do not have access to enough food, 18 million have no access to drinking water and more than a million were affected by an outbreak of cholera, creating a humanitarian crisis.

The value of the weapons sold, which were approved by the NCACC for export from South Africa to the two main states involved in the war, is pegged at R1.2-billion in vehicles, bombs and shells in 2018 and R11-billion between 2010 and 2019 for the supply of weapons.

Key findings in the report are that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been among the biggest importers of South African munitions since 2014 and that approvals of exports to both spiked between 2015 and 2016 and made up 40% of all approved weapons exports from South Africa.

Between 2015 and 2018, the US was the premier supplier, topping the list of arms exports to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, selling around $10-billion and $3-billion worth of weapons to these two states.

In second place was the United Kingdom which received $2-billion in weapons orders. These, as well as weapons sold by South Africa, says the Open Secrets (OS) report “are used against civilians and in the commission of war crimes”.

The OS report reveals that over the past six years, thousands of combatants have been killed in the war. Also, a United Nations report shows extensive evidence that “civilians have been deliberately targeted in the brutal conflict”.

“A myriad of state and non-state actors, including terrorist groups, have joined the conflict, exacerbating its complexity,” noted the report.

Schools, factories and hospitals have been destroyed and a staggering 80% of the population — 24 million people — are now in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

In 2018, it was already estimated that 85,000 children had starved to death since the start of the war. Since 2020, Yemen has had to face the added burden of the Covid-19 global health pandemic.

The report notes that while the conflict is complex and that there is “widespread evidence of abuses by all parties”, the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates used their “considerable military might to unleash a barrage of attacks on the civilian population”.

A 2020 UN report concluded that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with the government of Yemen and secessionist forces, had committed what amounted to war crimes.

Houthi supporters raise their weapons while shouting anti-Saudi and anti-US slogans during a demonstration against sanctions imposed recently by the UN Security Council on the Houthis and their allies, Yemen, 16 April 2015. (Photo: EPA / YAHYA ARHAB)

“These actions include targeting and murdering civilians, rape and sexual violence, torture and the use of child soldiers” noted OS.

Between 2015 and 2016, the first two years of the conflict, nearly half of all South African weapons exports were for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, OS investigators found.

“In 2019 there was a brief respite from South African complicity in arming these warring parties when a dispute over the terms of the end-user-certificate (EUC) delayed the granting of export permits.”

However, the “gates of the trade” were re-opened, according to the researchers, “in large part due to massive pressure from the arms companies and their partners in the state”.

The report accuses South African authorities of bowing to industry pressure to soften the terms of the EUC and amending this in May 2020.

An EUC is a tool to prevent munitions from being distributed without control and is a documented undertaking between a country selling arms and the purchaser of arms.

The question, ask the researchers, is whether South Africa is viewed as a “soft touch” jurisdiction or a “discreet back door” from which to export weapons to avoid more onerous legislation at home.

“On paper South Africa has for a generation had a well-constituted, albeit largely dysfunctional system intended to ensure that dodgy arms deals are not tolerated,” notes the report.

The NCACC was established in 1995 and consists of ministers and deputy ministers, and is mandated to stop weapons exports “that could contribute to human rights abuses”.

Other government departments too, including International Relations, Defence and Intelligence also play a role in the committee’ processes, the report says.

The officials who make up the committee are tasked with scrutinising what weaponry crosses South Africa’s borders and to ensure the country does not violate domestic and international law.

“It was precisely South Africa’s experience of such trade during apartheid that informed what should be a tough and effective regulatory system guided and informed by democratic constitutional values.”

The report shows that the NCACC “is guilty of regulatory failure over an extended period of time”.

Asked to respond to the OS investigation the NCACC, said the researchers, “revealed not only a lackadaisical approach to regulation but an absolute failure to appreciate the seriousness of their task and the magnitude of the consequences”.

That the NCACC has continued to approve export permits for weapons destined for Saudi Arabia and the UAE when these countries have been publicly implicated “over a number of years in war crimes in Yemen” was proof of this, said the report.

The committee had displayed “profound indifference” to the rights of “vulnerable citizens who are the target of human rights violations in far-flung corners of the world”.

As to who benefited from this, the report said that “the NCACC’s weakness is the arms companies’ gain”.

Before attending the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2019, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, had stated that she wanted to remind the UN that South Africa had benefited from international solidarity in the past.

“There are others in the world who need similar solidarity. The suffering of people of Yemen. The suffering people of Syria,” Pandor told her international audience.

The minister, said the authors of the report, was correct.

South Africa itself should show solidarity “by ending the supply of the weapons that are used against them [the people of Yemen]”.

The report sets out the background and the players in the war in Yemen, focusing on “the complexities of a brutal civil war and the intricacies and interests compounding it”. 

It also details the evidence of systemic crimes by the parties to the conflict and the rights violations the Yemenis have had to face, laws and regulations that govern the export of weapons as well as evidence that weapons exported from South Africa have found their way to Yemen. It makes recommendations “on how to fix the system and ensure accountability for those who are profiteering”.

The report is also a call to action “for the sake of those suffering in Yemen”.

In 2019, in briefing parties to the Arms Trade Treaty about South Africa’s framework, the NCACC, stated the OS report, said that when scrutinising applications to export weapons, it took into account all “publicly available information”.

“Reports to the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council, as well as the litany of well-publicised reports by Yemeni and international NGOs, constitute publicly available information. 

“These reports exhaustively analyse the devastation in Yemen, including the role of coalition forces there. Yet, in its correspondence to us [Open Secrets] in 2020, the NCACC tries to suggest that it can ignore all of this information if it is not brought to its attention by its foreign mission in New York, Dirco, the SSA or Defence Intelligence”.

The South African government, the report concluded, “is ambivalent about peace in Yemen. 

“In August 2020, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation told Parliament that the parties engaged in the conflict were to be ‘constantly reminded of their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law to focus on the priority areas of the protection of civilians, humanitarian access, aid funding, strengthening of the Yemeni economy and progress towards peace”.

It was “unconscionable” that South African companies like RDM were supplying weapons of war “to militaries that have systematically engaged in conduct that targets civilians and violates the rights of the people of Yemen”.

“Organisations working on the ground in Yemen say that this conduct amounts to war crimes. The expert panel advising the UN on the conflict agrees. It is similarly egregious that Rheinmetall in Germany may be using South African soil to bypass domestic regulations that prohibit the sale of weapons directly to states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” 

Yemeni women walk through the debris of a housing block allegedly destroyed by previous Saudi-led airstrikes, in Yemen, 29 September 2017. (Photo: EPA-EFE / YAHYA ARHAB)

Legislation and South Africa’s position 

The Open Secrets “Profiting from Misery” report sets out the history and the backdrop of South Africa’s role as a weapons supplier which, prior to 1994, was done in secret. Any disclosure back then could result in imprisonment.

“This was to provide cover for a vast commercial enterprise which, by the 1980s, saw Armscor emerge as one of the top 20 companies in South Africa in terms of its holdings. It had factories across the country and employed 20,000 people directly and a further 100,000 indirectly, many of whom worked for its 3,000 subcontractors”.

Weapons produced by Armscor were intended to fuel apartheid wars in southern Africa. However, by the late 1980s, much of this technology became “the basis for the export of weapons across the globe in contravention of a compulsory UN arms embargo”. 

Weapons of South African origin were deployed in conflicts and human rights violations across the world at the time, from Angola and Mozambique to Rwanda, Chad and Iran. 

Post-aparthied South Africa was determined to play its role as a beacon for human rights, building a regulatory framework “to serve a new vision for a constitutional democratic South African state and its role in global affairs”.

The recent shipments of weapons to Yemen, as covered in the report, is however, not the first occasion South Africa has fuelled conflict in that country.

“In fact, Yemen was at the centre of a watershed moment, now almost forgotten, in South Africa’s transition to democracy. This moment was also an important impetus for reform of the arms trade”.

In September 1994, Nelson Mandela’s government was “rocked” by reports that a large consignment of South African weapons had been sold by Armscor to Yemen. In the mix, say the authors of the report, was an elusive arms dealer known as Eli Wazan with connections to Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. 

“The context of the furore was that a liberated South Africa, by flooding Yemen with more weapons, was fuelling a civil war that had erupted on 27 April 1994 — the day on which South Africa went to the polls in its first democratic elections”.

The shipment included 10,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 15,000 G3 assault rifles and a million rounds of ammunition.

The then government appointed Judge Edwin Cameron — now a retired Constitutional Court justice — to lead a commission of inquiry. 

“The outcome of this process was to be profound. It not only probed this and subsequent deals, it also probed the arcane practice of arms procurement and sales in South Africa.”

This was an opportunity, argue the authors, for a nascent democratic state “to wrest control from the securocrats in military intelligence and elsewhere who had accrued enormous power during the final two decades of apartheid rule”.

The Cameron Commission would prove “a defining moment” for the defence establishment. No longer would it enjoy “the veil of protection afforded by national security imperatives, and the culture of secrecy and impunity was finally challenged”.

The recommendations of the commission informed new government policy meant to end the practice of “freewheeling and subterfuge” favoured by Armscor during apartheid. 

This led to the creation of new laws and a new institution — the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) — meant to ensure that the sale of weapons would align with the values enshrined in the Constitution. 

“No longer would weapons be sold to the highest bidder regardless of how they would be used.” 

In the 2000s, this human-rights based foreign policy would begin to “slowly unravel” in the Mbeki era.

“It is now often overlooked in polite circles that Mbeki’s administration, through its failed policy of quiet diplomacy, enabled massive human rights violations against civil society and opposition politicians in Zimbabwe.”

In 2011, Dirco issued a white paper reasserting a vision for South Africa “to play a leading role in championing the values of human rights, democracy, reconciliation and the eradication of poverty and underdevelopment”.

The reality, the report highlights, has been very different.

“The continued sale of weapons to countries engaged in war crimes in Yemen, with the approval of the NCACC and full knowledge of the minister of International Relations and Cooperation over many years, is a powerful reminder not only of the extent to which Dirco has been weakened, but also the manner in which unprincipled politics has prevailed,” said the report.

While on paper, South Africa had “a rigorous set of laws and institutions meant to filter out dubious arms transactions. The country is also signed up to an expansive set of international agreements and conventions to try and ensure that, among other things, it does not engage in illicit arms transactions.”

A cornerstone of South Africa’s arms trade policy is the National Conventional Arms Control Act which was promulgated in 2002 to establish “legitimate, effective, and transparent” arms control.

The act requires any company wishing to import or export weapons to or from South Africa to be registered with the secretariat of the NCACC.

The act requires registered arms companies wishing to export “controlled items” to apply for an export permit. The act also requires the NCACC to assess each application on a case-by-case basis. 

Two international obligations, the Arms Trade Treaty and UN Security Council Resolution 2216, as well as various other “arrangements” and agreements also need to be considered by the NCACC.

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which South Africa supported in the General Assembly of the UN, was ratified in December 2014, just months before the civil war broke out in Yemen. 

“Amongst other important provisions, Article 6 of the ATT prohibits state parties to the treaty from exporting weapons if they know at the time of authorisation that those weapons will be used to commit war crimes, be used against civilians, or violate the Geneva Conventions. The NCACC must ensure that the provisions of the Treaty are implemented in South African policy and practice”. DM

The full report is available on the Open Secrets website:
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  • Whilst wars lead to misery, devastation and death, are reprehensible and best avoided, it’s a fact of life since time immemorial. I am not condoning arms sales and am all for peaceful resolutions, but if we stop supplying, another country will fill the gap. That is the way of the world, period.

  • Another point, why isn’t Iran condemned as well? They are masters at fomenting violence and conflict. They are supplying arms to the other side, albeit surreptitiously, as is their way. Fairness and balance is required instead of singling out some countries whilst ignoring others.

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