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War-Crimes in Yemen: Made in South Africa?

South Africa risks increasing complicity in war-crimes if it continues arming Saudi Arabia and the UAE, writes Suraya Dadoo

A Saudi Arabian-led coalition has bombed and blockaded Yemen into famine.

Independent estimates put the total number of Yemenis killed in the campaign to restore former Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, back to power at nearly 50 000 since the Saudi-led coalition attacks began in March 2015.  Devastating airstrikes on hospitals, schools, and markets, has not returned Hadi to power, and unleashed – what the United Nations (UN) describes – as the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis.

A coalition blockade on Yemen is starving the country 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. Indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and shortages of medical supplies have led to the closure of half of Yemen’s health facilities.

Despite the humanitarian destruction that the war has brought, several countries – including South Africa – have been eager to supply Saudi Arabia and its allies with weapons for a campaign characterised by repeated violations of international humanitarian law – including war crimes, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. While the United States and Britain are the primary weapons suppliers to the coalition, South African arms companies have also been cashing in – and becoming increasingly complicit in serious human rights violations.

According to the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) – the authority that oversees South Africa’s arms exports –  South Africa sold more than 3 billion rands worth of arms and ammunition, armoured vehicles, surveillance and military technology to the coalition’s most actively warring members – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2016 and 2017.

Independent international relations strategist, Zeenat Adam, reports that South Africa’s state-owned weapons manufacturer, Denel, sold the UAE at least 1600 Umbani guided bombs for Mirage jets in 2016.  At last year’s Dubai Airshow, the UAE announced that it had ordered surveillance drones worth 180 million rands from Denel.

Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) – the South African venture of German arms giant, Rheinmetall – is preparing exports to the UAE of tens of thousands of mortar and artillery shells and over 12 000 bombs.

South African weapons in Yemen

NCACC protocols stipulate that end-users cannot re-export items to another country without South Africa’s explicit consent. Yet, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been doing exactly that since South African weapons have been turning up with alarming regularity in Yemen’s conflict for years.

In June 2011 – long before the Saudi coalition had officially entered the Yemen conflict – a Reuters photograph showed Yemeni soldiers sitting atop a South African Ratel armoured vehicle. When asked in Parliament by Democratic Alliance MP, David Maynier, how the Ratels ended up in Yemen, NCACC boss, Jeff Radebe, said he did not know. Maynier also asked Radebe whether the NCACC was investigating a possible violation of the end-user certificate by a country that had bought Ratels from South Africa. Radebe replied that he will “find out.”

Radebe’s “investigations” were not fruitful. In July 2015 – less than three months after the Saudi-led coalition began its devastating destruction of Yemen – television footage showed a Denel Dynamics Seeker II unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) being shot down over Yemen. An identification plate on the UAE-owned drone stating “Made in South Africa Carl Zeiss Optronics Pty Ltd” was clearly visible.

Responding to questions from Sunday Times journalists about the footage, Radebe simply pointed to the possibility of a Saudi breach of NCACC regulations.

On August 2, mortar attacks on a hospital and a fish market in the Yemeni port city of Hodeida killed 55 civilians and wounded 170. Munition fragments found at the scene are similar to munitions manufactured by RDM and supplied to the UAE, according to arms analyst Nick Waters.

The NCACC is turning a blind eye to mounting evidence of Saudi and Emirati breaches of NCACC regulations. In doing so, 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 conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights.” Under the UN Arms Trade Treaty – which South Africa ratified in 2014 – it 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.

The Yemen Data Project reveals that since 2015, nearly one-third of coalition air-raids hit civilian sites such as schools and hospitals. A recently-released UN report found that parties to the armed conflict in Yemen have committed a substantial number of violations of international humanitarian law – many of which may amount to war-crimes.

Yet, South Africa has not taken any steps to – at the very least – investigate – whether its weapons are used in violating international humanitarian law.

By overlooking evidence of Saudi and Emirati violations of its agreements, the NCACC is ignoring the risk of ever-greater South African complicity in the mounting violations and likely war crimes being committed in Yemen.

Germany and Norway have suspended exports of weapons to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, citing the risk of misuse in Yemen. Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium’s Walloon regional authority have denied licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the same reason. If these countries have recognised the risk of potential complicity in war-crimes, why hasn’t South Africa?

The Saudi-led coalition bombed a cholera treatment centre in June, even though Doctors Without Borders had shared the centre’s co-ordinates at least 12 times with the coalition. On 9 August, a school-bus transporting children to an excursion was blown up by the coalition, killing 40 children.

At what point will the NCACC say “enough” and stopping arming countries committing war-crimes in Yemen?


Suraya Dadoo is a researcher 

Media Review Network 



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