France, proud merchant of death in Yemen

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The French Socialist Party proudly presents its “record of successes” on its website.

Among them, number 33: Supporting the Performance of the Defence Industry, announces: “Whilst export sales in the [arms] sector amounted to €4.8 billion (US$5.3 billion) in 2012, they reached a record €16.9 billion in 2015 (US$18.8 billion). How did we achieve this? By providing companies with the government’s support in its bilateral relations with client states (Australia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India, etc.).”

In France, arms exports to Saudi Arabia are celebrated as a success story for the defence sector, which groups “5000 companies, that is 400,000 jobs, including 165,000 direct jobs in weaponry,” recalls the ruling party’s fact sheet.

The “success” of weapons exports is thus one of President François Hollande’s feats.

What do Yemeni civilians, subjected since March 2015 to unrelenting bombardment by a Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab states seeking to defeat the Houthi insurgency, think of this success story?

Quoted in a report by Amnesty International, Nawal al Maghafi, a Yemeni researcher, is scathing.

“These countries are arming and aiding a campaign that’s bombing, killing and starving civilians. I have witnessed the reality Yemenis are having to endure - watching bodies pulled from underneath the rubble in Sana’a or seeing body parts strewn across the site of a water plant hit by an airstrike in Hajjah or attending a wedding party only to see it turn into a funeral.”

The Yemeni researcher points to the hypocrisy of the countries exporting arms to Saudi Arabia at the same time as being signatories of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which entered into force in December 2014.

In 2015, Germany, Spain, the United States – accused of selling cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia – France, Italy, Montenegro, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, all signatories of the ATT, declared arms sales and export licences to Saudi Arabia worth US$25 billion.

Article 7 of the ATT is, however, clear: “…each exporting State Party, prior to authorization of the export of conventional arms…shall…assess the potential that the conventional arms or items: a) would contribute to or undermine peace and security; b) could be used to: i) commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law; ii) commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law.”

 

“Lack of transparency”

In January 2016, a panel of United Nations experts returned from Yemen with a 51-page report documenting “119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law”.

A month later, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for “the launch of an initiative aimed at imposing an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, given the serious allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”

The documenting of the breaches of international humanitarian law and the war crimes committed by the coalition in Yemen led to a shift in several arms exporting countries: “There was lively public debate in England and Canada. Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden stopped arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” recalls Tony Fortin, a researcher at the Observatoire des Armements (Arms Observatory).

And in France? “All is well. That is the response we get from the government about arms exports to Saudi Arabia,” sighs Aymeric Elluin, head of human rights advocacy at Amnesty International.

Arms exports in France are exclusively in the hands of the Interministerial Commission for the Study of Military Equipment Exports (CIEEMG), placed under the tutelage of the Prime Minister. When three Members of Parliament looked into the work of this commission in the year 2000, they concluded “the most that is known about the French system of arms exports control is that it lacks transparency...this leads some to believe that arms exports in France are, in fact, not governed by any rules.”

 

Arms sales: a tool of influence

The executive is content with publishing an annual report to the parliament on arms exports.

The Observatoire des Armements points out that this report “has been substantially trimmed down, placing the promotion of exports before transparency. It neither allows parliamentarians, nor researchers nor civil society to apply effective scrutiny.”

At the end of 2014, MPs Philippe Foulon and Nathalie Chabanne proposed “that parliament be involved in the export control mechanism. There is a real demand for this.”

Chabanne tells Equal Times that “no follow-up has been given to our proposal” to date.

The lack of transparency allows the government to continue to sign huge deals with Saudi Arabia whilst turning a blind eye to the violations committed by this top client: “Saudi Arabia was France’s leading client between 2009 and 2015. It bought the Caesar cannons used in Yemen, for example, as the National Defence Review confirms. Yet the sale of arms is a tool of influence. Saudi Arabia uses it to secure complicit silence from France over Yemen. France uses it to secure other economic deals with the Gulf monarchy,” denounces Fortin.

In November 2015, the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, left Riyadh with the promise of contracts worth €10 billion euros (US$11.1 billion) in sectors such as public transport and renewable energy.

On 27 June, the Saudi defence minister paid another visit to President François Hollande.

“Negotiations are being held on new arms sales and the extension of existing contracts, including the €3 billion (US$ 3.3 billion) French arms deal, originally intended for the Lebanese army, that is now going to Saudi Arabia. It is essential that the authorisation given for this export be reassessed, given the change in recipient,” insists Elluin.

In the 2015 report published within the framework of the ATT, France declared that it had exported 115 armoured combat vehicles and 745 sniper rifles to Saudi Arabia.

Elluin insists: “France can be deemed conscious that it is taking part in war crimes when it is selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It is up to civil society to bring the ATT to life and to show that the country is out of line with its commitments.”

It is a war of attrition that has only just begun: “Last March, preliminary meetings were held ahead of the Arms Trade Treaty Second Conference of States Parties to take place in Geneva in August,” Elluin continues.

“NGOs tried to raise the issue of the conflict in Yemen. They did not hit the mark.”

 

This story has been translated from French.