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South Africa’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE fuel Yemen’s humanitarian crisis


Dr Chris Jones is Chief researcher in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, and also head of the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University

How is it possible that South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee has approved the export of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates worth R7-billion since the start of the war in Yemen, while South Africa has repeatedly expressed its concern about the human suffering in Yemen?

Human rights have been described by many as irreplaceable principles (or the cornerstone) of democracy. In light of this, and in celebration of the International Day of Democracy (15 September), I would like to focus on the dire human rights situation in Yemen, to which South Africa and several other democratic countries have been contributing.

Humanitarian crisis

We know that Yemen has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis because of its ongoing civil war. A staggering 80% of the population (about 24 million) desperately need humanitarian help. An estimated 85,000 children had already starved to death between the start of the war in September 2014 and 2018.

After six years of armed conflict, more than 18,400 civilians had been killed. This country experiences the world’s worst food security “with 20.1 million people – nearly two-thirds of the population – requiring food assistance at the beginning of 2020”.

By the end of 2019, 18 million Yemenis did not have access to safe water and more than a million were affected by a cholera outbreak.

In 2017, more than a million pregnant Yemeni women were suffering from moderate to acute malnutrition. It should be pointed out that women account for more than three-quarters of internally displaced people in Yemen.

Air attacks

In 2020, at least 212 civilians, including 54 children, were killed or injured in Saudi air attacks. According to the 2019 Human Rights Watch Report, at least 90 “apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes” had taken place since 2015, hitting essential infrastructure facilities such as schools, hospitals, homes, markets and mosques, killing thousands of people.

In September 2015 there was an air attack on a wedding party in Al-Wahijah, killing 131 civilians (“the corpses were scattered among the trees”), while a similar attack in 2016 on a funeral in Sana’a, killed 155 people and wounded hundreds more – at least 525.

The Yemen Data Project (an independent data-collection project on the conflict in Yemen) has recorded 23,351 Saudi-led coalition airstrikes since the start of the war, killing or injuring more than 18,600 civilians.

Yemen finds itself in this crisis because there was/is a lack of accountability and no consequence for parties contributing to this conflict. Also, war criminals have not been held to account and victims have not received any redress. Unsurprisingly, the United Nations Human Rights Council describes the country as “a tortured land, with its people ravaged in ways that should shock the conscience of humanity”.

Democratic South Africa’s role

This brings us to South Africa, which has sold weapons worth R11-billion to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) between 2010 and 2019. Both countries have been accused of diverting arms to Yemen, fuelling the devastating conflict and worsening the widespread suffering and human rights abuses there. They are also among the biggest importers of South African munitions since 2014.

The evidence suggests that some of these weapons have been used in attacks on civilians. In 2015 and 2016, approvals of exports to these two countries spiked and made up more than 40% of all approved weapons exports from South Africa.

But we weren’t the only suppliers of weapons. Other countries like the US, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain all played their part. For example, the US topped the list of arms exports to Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 2020, delivering $10-billion worth of weapons, followed by the UK which provided weapons worth $2-billion.

The US also topped the list of exporting weapons to the UAE – with exports valued just under $3-billion. However, Germany and Italy have banned the export of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries “directly involved” in the Yemeni civil war, while the US and the UK have, at least temporarily, suspended their arms exports to Saudi Arabia (in the UK, the temporary freeze on exports was short-lived – however, the matter is again before the courts).

In South Africa, the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) – comprising several ministers and deputy ministers directly appointed by the President – was established to specifically ensure that our sale of weapons would be in line with our constitutional values. In other words, countries to whom weapons are sold must uphold, respect and protect human rights and also promote democracy. So too should a democratic institution like the NCACC.

In fact, by law, the NCACC should stop weapons from leaving the country if they will contribute to human rights violations or worsening conflict. Unfortunately, this committee is described by Open Secrets as a “toothless arms watchdog”, indicating its failures since 1995 – involving countries such as Rwanda, Syria, Zimbabwe, Turkey and Libya.

The question is: how is it possible that the NCACC approved the export of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE worth R7-billion since the start of the Yemen war, while South Africa has repeatedly expressed its concern about the human suffering in Yemen? Let’s not kid ourselves: our government wasn’t interested in addressing the human rights abuses in that country.

Even in 2020, weapons were imported from Rheinmetall Denel Munition by Turkey while the latter was heavily involved in the conflicts in Libya and Syria.

The apparent failure of the NCACC to fulfil its legal duties and properly investigate weapons exports made South Africa up till now part of the crimes committed daily, and it undermines the vision of our democracy that places human lives and human rights at the centre of its (foreign) policy decisions.

So, what can we do about this situation?

We need an urgent reform of South Africa’s arms sector. Fortunately, the Pretoria High Court recently granted an urgent order forcing the NCACC to “disclose the names of all permit holders in South Africa that are authorised to export arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE” (brought by Open Secrets and the South African Litigation Centre). This is a significant first step to stop powerful state institutions and large arms companies from selling weapons to these two countries.

Furthermore, as civil society we must stand in solidarity with the people of Yemen – by, among other things, trying to end the supply of weapons used against them. If we fail to do this, we will be failing the fundamental values of our own struggle for freedom and constitutional democracy. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    The arms manufacturers know that arms are money, and that money talks. The NCACC is not toothless, it is worse than that. It is a cat’s paw – it takes instruction and knows when to approve, turn a blind eye, or disapprove. And that comes direct from the ruling party.

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