Since 2015, nearly 250,000 Yemenis have died as a result of the ongoing war between Houthi-led forces and the internationally recognised government backed by the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition. All parties to the conflict have repeatedly breached international humanitarian law, mounted indiscriminate attacks against civilians and obstructed humanitarian aid.
As a humanitarian organisation, protecting civilians caught up in armed conflict is at the heart of CARE’s mandate. As such, we consistently advocate for governments to use their political influence to urge warring parties to halt violations. Yet as the crisis in Yemen rages on, the diplomatic efforts of influential countries such as France, Germany and the United States are being undermined by the sale and transfer of weapons to parties to the conflict.
With the Yemeni a population having been constantly under fire and no end to the crisis in sight, CARE determined that joining forces with civil society actors to call on these influential nations to stop putting civilian lives at risk and undermining peace by selling weapons to the parties waging war in Yemen was integral to upholding the humanitarian imperative of saving lives and alleviating suffering.
France: challenging the system of export controls and building on public mobilisation
CARE France is an active member of a coalition of human rights and humanitarian organisations advocating for increased transparency around arms sales and the suspension of arms transfers to parties to the conflict. A permanent parliamentary committee of enquiry ensures that France meets its international commitments under the Arms Trade Treaty and the European Union common position on arms exports. Although the French government submits an annual report on arms exports to parliament, French parliamentarians do not have the mandate or resources to control government action in an opaque system with little transparency around arms sales.
In 2018, 26 members of parliament demanded the creation of a committee of enquiry, resulting in a fact-finding mission by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs Commission on the control of arms exports. French arms sales are being publicly debated thanks to increased media interest, visits from Yemeni activists, the broadcast of two in-depth documentaries+Anne Poiret, ‘Mon pays fabrique des armes’, documentary, October 2018; Alexandra Jousset, ‘Crimes de guerre au Yémen, les complicités européennes’. and petitions that have received over 250,000 signatures. Currently, three in four French citizens support the suspension of French arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and would like to see increased parliamentary control over the French arms trade.
Despite this, and the recent release of an official French military intelligence document+Disclose, ‘Cartographie d’un mensonge’, April 2019 (https://made-in-france.disclose.ngo/fr/chapter/yemen-papers/).and pictures+Disclose, ‘Blocus au Yémen: les preuves de la complicité de la France’, September 2019 (: https://disclose.ngo/fr/article/blocus-au-y%C3%A9men-les-preuves-de-la-complicit%C3%A9-de-la-france).proving that French military equipment purchased by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is being used in the Yemeni conflict, there are no signs that the French government intends to suspend arms transfers. In fact, in its most recent report to parliament, released in June 2019,+‘Rapport au Parlement 2019 sur les exportations d’armement de la France’, Ministère des Armées, June 2019 (https://www.defense.gouv.fr/actualites/articles/exportations-d-armement-le-rapport-au-parlement-2019). the government noted a 30% increase in arms orders between 2017 and 2018, including key contracts with Saudi Arabia – one of France’s top customers, along with the UAE.
Germany: keeping the German arms export stop in place
The agreement establishing the new coalition government in Germany in 2018 stated that arms control and disarmament should be priorities for German foreign and security policy. Signatories also agreed that no German military equipment should be supplied to parties actively involved in the conflict in Yemen. Yet in 2019 the German authorities approved arms deliveries worth more than €1 billion to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the first half of 2019 more arms exports from Germany were approved than in the whole of 2018.+‘Germany’s arms export approvals headed for record high’, DW.com, 7 October 2019 (https://www.dw.com/en/germanys-arms-export-approvals-headed-for-record-high/a-50730209)
Germany’s arms export policy draws on the Foreign Trade Act, the federal government’s principles for the export of arms and military equipment, and is guided by EU regulations. The Federal Security Council, which meets in secret, is the supreme decision-making body when it comes to arms sales, though the government has considerable discretion in approving arms exports. Decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis, and are communicated to the German parliament. Critics claim that, in addition to the non-transparent way in which the committee works, the legal framework and regulations underlying arms exports are so complex that effective control by parliament is impossible.
In 2018 CARE Germany joined civil society actors in advocating against the sale of German arms to parties to the Yemen conflict and others. In late autumn, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a complete ban on all German arms exports to Saudi Arabia, including exports that had already been approved. The moratorium was subsequently renewed three times, before pressure from European partners led to the partial lifting of the export ban in March 2019. Germany has still stopped direct exports, but continues to contribute German parts to joint European arms sales. Germany and France agreed in October 2019 on a so-called ‘de minimis rule’ for joint projects, under which Berlin will not hinder the export of French military equipment where German components account for less than a certain percentage of parts (unofficially there was talk of 20%).+‘France and Germany strike deal over arms exports’, dpa international, 16 October 2019 (https://www.dpa-international.com/topic/france-germany-strike-deal-arms-exports-urn%3Anewsml%3Adpa.com%3A20090101%3A191016-99-326030)
The decision to keep most of the moratorium in place is due at least in part to the commitment of CARE and other humanitarian agencies, which advocated with parliamentarians and spoke out publicly. A recent survey shows that 81% of Germans are against exporting military equipment to countries involved in the war in Yemen, and three-quarters oppose Germany supplying weapons to European countries which in turn supply parties to the conflict.8
The arms export ban will need to be extended in March 2020, and CARE will continue to push for a sustained ban.
The United States: aligning US policy in Yemen with the will of Congress and the American people
The United States’ role in the Yemen conflict is complex. The country provides generous humanitarian funding as the largest aid donor, yet is simultaneously fuelling the crisis by providing military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, including billions of dollars’ worth of weapons.+‘Sold to an ally, lost to an enemy’, cnn.com (https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/02/middleeast/yemen-lost-us-arms/). This has continued despite the documented diversion of US weapons to third parties and their use in Saudi and UAE airstrikes that have injured and killed Yemeni civilians.+‘Made in America’, cnn.com (https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2018/09/world/yemen-airstrikes-intl/) Not only does this military support contribute to civilian deaths and injuries – it also undermines the diplomatic role of the US in holding parties to account for their conduct and pushing for a resolution of the conflict.
US involvement began in 2015 when, under then President Barack Obama, the US provided weapons and military support to the Saudi- and Emirati-led intervention. Although Obama later suspended the sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh due to concerns over mounting civilian casualties, the Trump administration resumed weapons sales in 2017. After years of catastrophic casualties and harm and impeded humanitarian access, in 2018 humanitarian organisations came together to urge the United States to end its military involvement and lead a diplomatic effort to bring hostilities to an end.+‘Humanitarian CEOs to US government: please act now to save civilian lives’, CARE, 26 November 2018 (https://www.care.org/humanitarian-ceos-to-us-government-please-act-now-to-save-yemeni-lives).
In 2019, momentum to curb US involvement in the conflict began to catalyse when Congress put forward multiple pieces of bipartisan legislation to end US involvement in the conflict, including invoking the War Powers Resolution and blocking an $8 billion arms deal that Trump tried to force through without Congressional oversight. Trump used his veto authority to prevent the legislation from becoming law – in fact, four of the five presidential vetoes that Trump has issued to date have related to US engagement in Yemen. The year ended with a notable lack of progress, as several proposed provisions addressing the US role in Yemen, including a one-year export suspension of precision-guided munitions, were excluded from the annual defence authorisation act.
Despite these setbacks, the humanitarian community continues to look for other legislative avenues to mitigate civilian harm and promote peace in Yemen. In 2020, CARE USA and peer organisations will continue to engage with members of Congress in Washington and mobilise citizens nationwide to call on their representatives to address the root causes of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and end military support for the war.+‘Commentary: Yemen needs US help, not bombs, to stop humanitarian crisis’, Post and Courier, 23 June 2019 (https://www.postandcourier.com/opinion/commentary/commentary-yemen-needs-us-help-not-bombs-to-stop-humanitarian/article_b29adc98-9422-11e9-a7fd-6f6b4ba7d878.html).+‘Tell Congress: end the war in Yemen’, (https://my.care.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=774).
For CARE, advocacy involves a delicate balance: speaking truth to power(s) without compromising our ability to safely reach people in need. This requires a constant negotiation of humanitarian principles, weighing risks to our independence and neutrality while also considering the humanitarian imperative.
The case of Yemen starkly illustrates the reality that aid alone cannot end the suffering of a population subjected to years of war. Yet continuous pleas for parties to the conflict to uphold the laws of war have yielded little change in the conduct of hostilities, and there is minimal incentive to prioritise a diplomatic solution despite the clear link between arms sales to parties to the conflict and the loss of countless lives, immeasurable suffering and decades-long impacts on Yemen’s development.
CARE’s advocacy on the arms trade in Yemen, like that of other civil society actors, has amplified calls from Yemenis themselves, as well as the global public and citizens in arms-trading countries. In this case, the principle of humanity became our collective imperative: to address human suffering wherever it’s found, protect life and health and ensure respect for all human beings.