EU should put human life over profits of arms industry

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

An armed Yemeni man walks amongst portraits on the graves of Yemenis allegedly killed in the country?s ongoing conflict, during the funeral of senior Houthi commander Muhammed al-Mahdar, allegedly killed in the fighting, at a cemetery in Sanaa, Yemen, 14 October 2019. [EPA-EFE/YAHYA ARHAB]

Almost five years after the start of the Saudi-led intervention, the war in Yemen still rages on. While thousands have died, one actor that has fared well: the European arms industry, write Hans Lammerant and Bram Vranken.

Hans Lammerant is author of the report “War in Yemen, made in Europe” and researcher at the peace organisation Vredesactie. Bram Vranken is researcher and campaigner at Vredesactie.

Despite the use of a huge amount of fire-power, battle lines have barely moved. The people of Yemen are bearing the brunt of the conflict. Thousands have died because of the bombings, and tens of thousands have perished because of the famine and diseases caused by the war. However, there is one actor that has fared well: the European arms industry.

In 1935 Smedley Butler, an American Major General, wrote the book ‘War is a Racket’. Butler was disgusted by the profiteering of business interests from the horrors of the First World War. He wrote that “War is a racket. It always has been. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

More than 80 years after Butler wrote these words, nothing has changed. In a report published today by the Belgian peace organisation Vredesactie, the extent to which the European arms industry has been profiting from the war in Yemen is laid bare. The report documents hundreds of European companies and dozens of EU states involved in the export of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition. The sale of weapons to the actors in the Yemeni civil war stands in stark contrast with the EU’s rules and policies regarding human rights and arms exports.

Both the Arms Trade Treaty and the EU Common Position prohibit issuing export licenses when there is a clear risk that weapons could be used to violate international humanitarian law. This has been increasingly recognised by courts across Europe. This year in June, the British Court of Appeal ruled in an unprecedented judgment that arms exports to Saudi Arabia are unlawful. In the same month, the Belgian Conseil d’Etat cancelled several export licenses to the Saudi regime.

Governments don’t respect their own rules.

Already in 2016, the European Parliament took an important stance and called on EU member states to stop arming the Saudi-led coalition and to respect the EU Common Position on arms exports – the most important legal framework for arms export controls.

However, despite mounting evidence that European weapons have been instrumental in keeping every aspect of the war going from the naval blockade to the siege of Hodeidah, to the relentless bombing campaign, in September, after a two-year long review, EU member states concluded that the Common Position is more or less working fine. European governments are not only guilty in sustaining one of the deadliest wars happening right now, they are also willfully undermining their own legal framework. The Common Position may be a common legally binding framework, but its implementation is far from common.

This divergence in national arms export controls is all the more problematic as the arms industry is increasingly Europeanised. For example, at least 75 arms companies from all over of Europe are involved in the production of the Eurofighter Typhoon – a fighter jet which is being used in the bombing of Yemen. The European Commission has made the integration of the European defence industry one of its core objectives. In 2009, the defence package already partly liberalised the internal defence market. With the European Defence Fund, the Commission is planning to spend billions of euros in an attempt to further integrate the European arms industry and make it more competitive.

The logical conclusion is that the compliance with the rules from the Common Position has to be made enforceable towards the Member states, and other actors need to get the possibility to ensure this enforcement. It is not only time to stop exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia, it is time to make sure a similar catastrophe never happens again. If anything, the recent court rulings in the UK and in Belgium have shown that the selling of arms to countries in war and human rights violators is not only immoral, it is also illegal. It is time we start putting human life over corporate profits.

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