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December 14, 2018

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War in Yemen: European divisions on arms-export controls continue

2018/11/17, 11:40


War in Yemen: European divisions on arms-export controls continue

Truth NGO - The export of arms and equipment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE by Finland, Sweden, Germany and Spain is set to continue - yet political statements on arms sales bans still matter.

Truth NGO - The export of arms and equipment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE by Finland, Sweden, Germany and Spain is set to continue - yet political statements on arms sales bans still matter.

European discomfort over continuing weapons sales to warring parties in Yemen, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has led recently to some countries saying they would halt further arms sales. Concerns over civilian casualties in Yemen meant, they said, that they would block further deliveries, when in fact many continued to provide weapons or support. The apparent failure to carry through on stated commitments raises broader questions regarding challenges to their implementation.

For a start, were those announcements intended only to assuage domestic concerns in supplier states? Or do they suggest also that the exporting state is weighing more complex issues around whether to sell military equipment to countries that are not pluralistic democracies or which are engaged in conflict, as well as the political and economic relationship between exporting and recipient states? In the case of sales to some Middle Eastern countries, this tension is becoming more apparent as they engage in independent military action.
New promises, old contracts

What is clear is that any restriction on sales spurred by concern over Yemen is not necessarily being applied retrospectively to existing contracts. Indeed, evidence indicates that weapons deliveries to countries involved in the war in Yemen may continue if they were agreed as part of a previous contract signed before the pledges were made.

Finland reportedly approved the export of spare parts for armoured vehicles to the UAE in January and July 2018, even though all the candidates in Finland’s presidential election in January 2018 had pledged to stop arms sales to this country. The justification was that the supply of spare parts did not amount to a new contract.

Sweden adopted new arms-export-control guidelines in mid-April 2018, stating that ‘in the future the democratic status of the recipient state will be a central condition when considering licence applications’. However, additional work to support contracts signed before the new guidelines were adopted will continue to be processed according to the previous regulations. Hence, Saab pursued support orders for the GlobalEye advanced airborne early-warning and control system being procured by the UAE. While the UAE placed its first order for the GlobalEye in November 2015, a contract for ‘additional functionality’ was signed in June 2018.

In Spain, the socialist-led majority arriving in power in June 2018 also had to deal with previously signed contracts. On 3 September, the ministry of defence halted the sale of 400 precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, which followed a contract signed in 2015 by the previous government. However, ten days later, the Spanish government executed a u-turn and eventually approved the sale. This change of heart was in part due to alleged Saudi threats to cancel another arms deal, that of five Navantia-built frigates. A letter of intent had been signed in April 2018 for the design and construction of five frigates based on the Avante 2200 Combatant, and the deal was estimated at €1.8 billion (US$2.12bn). It is expected to generate direct and indirect employment for five years for 6,000 Spanish workers.
Multinational conundrum

Joint weapons projects, involving more than one country, may increasingly present a problem for Europe, where there are already differences in export policy between states. The German coalition agreement in March 2018 indicated that ‘from now on, we will not authorise exports to countries as long as they are directly involved in the Yemen war’. Yet Germany is one of the four partner nations in the Eurofighter Typhoon programme, along with Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. The export of joint weapons platforms to controversial customers may as a result generate tensions among partner-nations.

Furthermore, according to Der Spiegel, since the coalition agreement was adopted, the German government has granted licences for the export of artillery-positioning systems to Saudi Arabia, and of warheads and missiles to the UAE.
Why political promises on arms-export controls matter

While these examples tend to show that statements on limiting arms sales to countries at war in Yemen serve primarily a domestic audience, such political messages nonetheless fulfil multiple purposes. They still send a political signal to recipient states, to which the latter can react strongly, as when Canada expressed concern for women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, promises mean that those who make them can then be held accountable: civil society, non-governmental organisations and political parties can then ask governments to explain why in their view promises are broken or forgotten. This at least puts the issue on the domestic agenda; however, this is not always the case in all European countries, such as France and the UK.

Overall, limiting arms sales unilaterally is a difficult commitment to maintain. For such restrictions to be applied and upheld, the route of a European Union arms embargo would bind all member states to the same behaviour and facilitate non-export decisions. A more harmonised application of the existing EU Common Position on Arms Exports would also work towards this goal. Whether all EU member states would agree to such binding steps remains open to debate.

Author:Lucie Béraud-Sudreau

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War in Yemen: European divisions on arms-export controls continue

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