Almost two months after the United States announced it would end offensive support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, as well as relevant arms sales, the administration of President Joe Biden has given little clarity on how she would define these parameters.
The move, while sketchy, was welcomed by U.S.-based advocates, who had long argued that Washington should end its support for the coalition over reports of widespread human rights violations. man and conflicts punishing Yemeni civilians.
Activists from other countries supplying arms to Riyadh have also taken note of the political backbone of the Biden administration, hoping it could influence the respective positions of their own governments on the war in Yemen and arms exports to the Saudi government.
But weeks after Bidens’ announcement, supporters outside the United States say little has changed.
In terms of arms sales, we have six years now in the UK with sales figures, licenses and absolutely no indication that is going to change, said Martin Butcher, policy adviser on arms and conflicts with Oxfam International. .
And if anything, they took a bit of a harsh tone in reaction to the Biden initiative.
Boys watch destroyed store hit by Saudi Arabian airstrikes in Sana’a, Yemen [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]Billions of arms sales
The British government stressed that it had a separate relationship with Riyadh with the United States, both of the country’s long-time allies, and maintained that it had strict humanitarian criteria for arms exports.
On February 8, James Cleverly, Britain’s Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, told parliament the government noted the Biden administrations’ decision, but cited a Houthi offensive against Marib, the last stronghold. government in the north of the country, drone attacks on the border against Saudi Arabia and atrocities committed by the Houthis to justify UK support and sales in Riyadh.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, a government spokesperson said the UK has one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world.
The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and rigorously assesses all export licenses against strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licenses where it would be inconsistent with these criteria, the spokesperson said.
The UK accounted for 9% of Saudi Arabia’s arms imports from 2016 to 2020, just behind the US with 79%, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, accounted for 32% of the UK’s arms exports during the period, the largest share of any country the UK government exported to.
Since March 2015, the UK has authorized more than $ 9.3 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, including $ 3.7 billion in the category which includes planes, helicopters and drones, and 5 $ 3 billion in the category that includes grenades, bombs and missiles, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).
Advocates also noted that the government has halved aid to Yemen this year compared to last year.
While the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shown little will to move on the issue, Butcher said that a clearer US resolve on what it sees as offensive weapons linked to the Saudi coalition in Yemen could potentially undermine UK-made arms supply chains that depend on US parts.
Such clarity could come from an ongoing interagency review led by the Biden administration.
There are significant exports of Paveway bomb guidance kits from the Raytheon plant in Scotland, Fife, and these are dependent on the purchase of components from the United States, he said.
So when Biden’s review comes to an end, if there is a clear definition of offensive weapons, it could easily affect UK exports whether the UK likes it or not, he said.
Amnesty International members protest against continued arms sales by UK governments to Saudi Arabia in 2016 [File: Alastair Grant/AP Photo]No real impact yet
Katie Fallon, CAAT’s parliamentary coordinator, said that while the Biden administrations’ announcement brought more multi-party support to change policy or end the arms trade in the British parliament, it had yet to be done. real impact.
Such an impact, she said, could arise if the US magazine finds that the Saudi-led coalition has committed violations of international law involving foreign weapons.
This could undermine the UK government’s previous ruling, following a court-ordered review of the 2019 arms deal, that the Saudi-led coalition’s humanitarian law violations in Yemen were abuses. isolated incidents and that arms transfers presented no clear risk of contributing to such a situation. abuses.
The CAAT, whose lawsuit forced the initial judicial review, has since filed for judicial review of the government’s resumption of arms transfers. The UK had suspended arms sales for a year from June 2019, approving at least $ 1.9 billion in sales after the resumption.
For the United States to do something that would have an impact here, it would be to point out and categorically accept that these violations have occurred, Fallon told Al Jazeera.
Very important American pivot
The war in Yemen entered its sixth year last week. Entrenched fighting between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition has taken a heavy toll on the Yemenis, with thousands of civilians killed and a humanitarian catastrophe pushing 13.5 million people to the brink of starvation.
Throughout the conflict, 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 the decision to allow four fuel ships to dock at the blocked port of Hodeidah, was an attempt to rehabilitate the Saudi government’s position. vis-à-vis the United States.
The Biden administration has sought to distance itself from the policies of former President Donald Trump, and officials have increasingly emphasized the need for diplomacy to end the conflict in Yemen.
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 U.S. administration announced that it would review the arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates approved by former President Donald Trump.
Germany and the government of Wallonia, a region in southern Belgium, have also banned the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia in recent years, citing rights violations in Yemen and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
France, Spain and Australia, meanwhile, resisted calls to end sales.
For activists in Canada, Bidens’ new approach to the conflict in Yemen is a source of hope, said Simon Black, professor at Brock University in Ontario.
We saw it as an opportunity and we still see it as an opportunity to increase the pressure on the [Justin] The Trudeau government, said Black, one of the main organizers of Labor Against the Arms Trade, one of a coalition of groups that have protested for years against the sale of Canadian-made light armored vehicles (LAVs) to the ‘Saudi Arabia.
Human rights activists 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 Ottawas’ arms sales, according to SIPRI. Opponents 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 Jazeeras’ request for comment.
He has previously said he maintains strict arms export regulations. In 2019, the Foreign Office said it found no substantial risk that current Canadian arms exports to Saudi Arabia could result in violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.
But advocates continued to call for an end to exports. Protesters last week blocked rail lines near General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada, which manufactures the LAVs, as activists sought to seize both international pressure and the possibility of a national election.
I think there is more than one leverage point. The change in administration of Biden, their backbone, is very important, Black told Al Jazeera. And that is why we have decided to step up actions.
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