Advocates see ‘opportunity’ in US review of Saudi arms sales

Arms control advocates outside the US hope Joe Biden’s Yemen policy shift will spur their gov’ts to take similar action.

For several years, human rights activists in the UK, Canada, France and elsewhere have called on their governments to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the war in Yemen [File: Tolga Akmen/AFP]

Nearly two months after the United States announced it would halt “offensive” support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, as well as “relevant” arms sales, the administration of President Joe Biden has offered little clarity on how it will define those parameters.

The move, though short on specifics, was welcomed by US-based advocates, who had long argued that Washington should end its backing of the coalition due to reports of widespread human rights abuses and the conflict’s punishing humanitarian toll on Yemeni civilians.

Activists in other countries that provide arms to Riyadh also took note of the Biden administration’s policy pivot, hoping it could influence their own governments’ respective positions on the war in Yemen and weapons exports to the Saudi government.

But several weeks after Biden’s announcement, advocates outside of the US say little has changed.

“In terms of arms sales, we’ve got six years now of the United Kingdom with shockingly high sales figures, licensing figures and absolutely no indication whatsoever, that that’s going to change,” said Martin Butcher, policy adviser on arms and conflict with Oxfam International.

“And if anything, they’ve taken a somewhat harsh tone in reaction to the Biden initiative.”

Boys look at a destroyed store hit by Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

Billions in weapons sales

The British government has stressed it has a separate relationship with Riyadh from the US – both longstanding allies of the country – and has maintained it has strict humanitarian criteria for arms exports.

On February 8, James Cleverly, the UK minister for the Middle East and North Africa, told parliament the government had “noted” the Biden administration’s move, but cited a Houthi offensive on Marib, the last government stronghold in the north of the country, cross-border drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, and atrocities committed by the Houthis as justification for UK support and sales to Riyadh.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, a government spokesperson said “the UK operates one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world”.

“The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and rigorously assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria,” the spokesperson said.

The UK accounted for nine percent of Saudi Arabia’s weapons imports from 2016 to 2020, second only to the US at 79 percent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, accounted for 32 percent of the UK’s weapons exports during the period, the largest share of any country the British government exported to.

Since March 2015, the UK has licensed more than $9.3bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, including $3.7bn in the category that includes aircraft, helicopters and drones, and $5.3bn in the category that includes grenades, bombs and missiles, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Advocates have also noted that the government has halved aid to Yemen this year compared with last.

While the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shown little willingness to budge on the issue, Butcher said a clearer determination from the US on what it considers offensive weapons related to the Saudi coalition in Yemen could potentially undermine UK-made arms supply chains that rely on US parts.

Such clarity could come from a current “inter-agency” review being conducted by the Biden administration.

“There are significant exports of Paveway bomb guidance kits from the Raytheon plant in Scotland, in Fife, and those depend on buying in” components from the US, he said.

“So when the Biden review finishes, if there’s a clear definition of offensive weapons, then that could easily affect UK exports, whether the UK wants it to or not,” he said.

Amnesty International members protest against the British government’s continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia in 2016 [File: Alastair Grant/AP Photo]

No ‘real-world impact yet’

Katie Fallon, the parliamentary coordinator for CAAT, said while the Biden administration’s announcement has brought in more “cross-party support for either changing the policy or ending arms trade” in the British parliament, “it hasn’t actually had a real-world impact yet”.

Such an impact, she said, could come if the US review finds the Saudi-led coalition committed violations of international law involving foreign weapons.

That could undermine the previous UK government determination, following a court-ordered review of the arms sale in 2019, that violations of humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen were “isolated incidents” and that weapons transfers posed no “clear risk” of contributing to such abuses.

CAAT, whose lawsuit compelled the initial court review, has since filed for a judicial review of the government’s resumption of arms transfer. The UK had paused arms sales for a year starting in June 2019, approving at least $1.9bn in sales after resuming.

“For the US to do something that would have impact here, it would be to categorically point out and accept that that these violations have occurred,” Fallon told Al Jazeera.

US pivot ‘very important’

The war in Yemen entered its sixth year last week. The entrenched fighting between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition have exacted a severe toll on Yemenis, with thousands of civilians killed and a humanitarian disaster pushing 13.5 million people to the brink of starvation.

Throughout the conflict, both the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels have been accused of committing war crimes.

Some observers say Riyadh’s recent ceasefire offer in Yemen, which was followed by a decision to allow four fuel ships to dock at the blockaded port of Hodeidah, were attempts to rehabilitate the Saudi government’s position with the US.

The Biden administration has sought to distance itself from the policies of former President Donald Trump, and officials have increasingly stressed a need for diplomacy to end the Yemen conflict.

Meanwhile, there have been other cracks in support for Riyadh since Biden took office, with Italy blocking arms sales in late January, shortly after the US administration said it would review arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE approved by former President Donald Trump.

Germany and the government of Wallonia, a southern region of Belgium, have also imposed bans on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in recent years, citing rights abuses in Yemen and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

France, Spain, and Australia, meanwhile, have resisted calls to end sales.

For activists in Canada, Biden’s new approach towards the conflict in Yemen is a “cause for hope”, said Simon Black, a professor at Brock University in Ontario.

“We saw it as an opportunity and we still see it as an opportunity to ramp up pressure on the [Justin] Trudeau government,” said Black, a lead organiser with Labour Against the Arms Trade, one of a coalition of groups that has for years protested against the sale of Canadian-made light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia.

Human rights campaigners have cited evidence, including videos and photographs posted online and verified by experts, showing Canadian LAVs being used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The government briefly froze approval of new arms exports, but lifted the suspension in 2020.

While Canada accounts for a relatively small amount of Saudi Arabia’s military imports, Riyadh accounts for just under half of all of Ottawa’s weapons sales, according to SIPRI. Opponents have also argued that the sales have symbolic significance, with Canada’s reputation as a human rights defender giving political cover to Riyadh’s abuses in Yemen.

The Canadian government did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

It has previously said it maintains strict arms export regulations. In 2019, the foreign affairs ministry said it found “no substantial risk” that current Canadian weapons exports to Saudi Arabia could result in violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.

But advocates have continued to call for an end to the exports. Last week, protesters blocked railway tracks near General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada, which manufactures the LAVs, as activists have sought to seize on both international pressure and the possibility of a national election.

“I think that there’s more than one point of leverage. The Biden administration shift, their pivot, is very important,” Black told Al Jazeera. “And that’s why we decided to ramp up actions.”

Source: Al Jazeera