Has Saudi Arabia captured our foreign policy, asks Suraya Dadoo
On August 2, the bustling al-Mehout fish market in the Yemeni city of Hodeida, was bombed. Fifty-five civilians were killed – mostly fishermen, fish sellers, and shoppers. Over 170 others were injured. The wounded from the fish market were taken to the adjacent Al-Thawrah hospital. A second, even more horrific attack was launched, this time directed at the hospital entrance – targeting ambulances and paramedics attending to the injured from the fish market. Nine people were killed at the hospital. The deadly massacre – which constitutes a war crime – took place almost 6000 kilometres away from South Africa, but the origins of the mortars used in the Hodeida attack may well be closer to home.
According to arms analyst, Nick Waters, munition fragments found at the scene of the Hoedida massacre share several characteristics with the distinctive 120mm mortar bombs manufactured by Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM). RDM supplies this mortar ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – the two most active warring countries in the coalition that has made Yemen the site of the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis.
Both RDM, and its parent company in Germany, were contacted for comment, and asked to provide images of their 120 mm mortar ammunition so that it could be compared to the munition fragments found in Hodeida. Neither responded to these requests.
The aim of the Saudi campaign in Yemen is to restore the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi back to power from the Houthi rebel group. Three years of devastating airstrikes on hospitals, schools, and markets, has resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 000 Yemenis, according to independent estimates. A blockade is starving Yemen of imports of food, medicine, and fuel. Without fuel, water cannot be pumped from boreholes. Unsanitary conditions have lead to outbreaks of disease, including the worst cholera outbreak in modern history.
Despite the humanitarian destruction that the war has brought, South African weapons companies are eager to supply Saudi Arabia and its allies with weapons for a campaign characterised by human rights violations, including war crimes according to the United Nations.
According to independent international relations strategist, Zeenat Adam, South African companies sold over 3 billion rands worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and its coalition ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) between 2016 and 2017 alone.
The National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) – the authority that oversees South Africa’s arms exports and regulates South African weapons companies – has been lax in ensuring that local arms dealers comply with its regulations.
According to Adam, in July 2015, TV footage showed a Denel drone being shot down over Yemen. When asked what South African weapons were doing in Yemen, NCACC boss, Jeff Radebe, simply pointed to a possible breach of end-user certificates. Radebe didn’t investigate the breach.
Last year, the parliamentary committee requested Radebe to report on South Africa’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Radebe agreed to do so, but never did.
SA providing cover for Saudi war-crimes
The NCACC is turning a blind eye to evidence of Saudi violations of its regulations. In doing so, argues Adam, it is violating South African and international statutes. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act No 41 of 2002 states that the NCACC must avoid transfers of arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights. Under the UN Arms Trade Treaty, South Africa has an obligation to halt the supply of weapons if these are likely to be used for serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.
Neither the NCACC nor the South African government can claim ignorance of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen. It has been widely documented by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Armed with this knowledge, and having been alerted to the presence of South African weapons in Yemen, no steps have been taken to – at the very least – investigate – whether the Saudis are using our weapons to commit war crimes in Yemen.
We are also encouraging others to turn a blind eye. On 28 September, South Africa abstained from voting on a UN Human Rights Council resolution that called for a probe into human rights violations in Yemen.
DIRCO’s silence on Saudi human rights violations in Yemen has been conspicuous, with the department issuing just two statements since Saudi Arabia launched its military campaign in March 2015. The first, issued on November 8 last year, only came in response to the firing of a missile towards Riyadh. The missile was intercepted, and there were no casualties. Bizarrely, DIRCO considered an intercepted missile an “escalation” of the conflict – and not the 933 Yemeni civilians killed by the Saudi-led coalition in the 13 months prior.
Prompted by the death of former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, DIRCO issued a second statement the following month expressing concern about Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe – but never once mentioned that the Saudi-led coalition was responsible.
Why is South Africa shielding Saudi Arabia?
The answer may lie in growing business ties between Pretoria and Riyadh. On 29 September – a day after South Africa abstained on the UHRC vote – Minister of Trade and Investment, Rob Davies, co-chaired the South Africa – Saudi Arabia Joint Economic Commission. Davies was following up on Mohammed bin Salman’s $10 billion investment pledge made to Cyril Ramaphosa in July.
On October 4 2018, Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), announced that it was considering buying a stake in cash-strapped Denel. Denel has already assisted the kingdom to develop its own drone programme.
Yemeni War-Crimes: Made in South Africa?
According to Adam, who has extensively documented South Africa’s deadly involvement in Yemen, our weapons companies don’t want to just sell arms to Saudi Arabia – they want to help Riyadh develop its own arms industry.
In 2016, Jacob Zuma inaugurated the Al-Kharj military facility in Riyadh. Built in collaboration with RDM, it is expected to produce 600 mortar projectiles daily and heavyweight aircraft bombs. Ivor Ichikowitz’s Paramount Group is also in talks with Saudi Arabia with a view to transferring technology and establishing production plants.
“This is far more dangerous than merely selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. South African companies run the risk of assisting Saudi Arabia to establish munitions factories that are capable of creating internationally-banned cluster munitions. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and has previously used cluster munitions in Yemen,” explains Adam. So, the possibility of South Africa being complicit in war crimes increases significantly.
While Minister of International Relations, Lindiwe Sisulu, seems committed to human rights-based international relations, her colleagues at the Department of Defence and the NCACC have been arming serial human rights violator, Saudi Arabia.
In January, South Africa will take up a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council, putting the country in a position to challenge oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia. If Pretoria remains silent on Saudi atrocities in Yemen, and continues its “business as usual” approach with Riyadh, then we would have sold our foreign policy to the highest bidder.
We must find a way to balance our economic priorities with our policy commitment to human rights and international law. We cannot allow the House of Saud to capture our human rights-based foreign policy.
This article first appeared in Afrikaans, and was published by Rapport newspaper on 21 October 2018.