Ethical Issues in the International Arms Trade: Is it possible to moralise sales of weapons?

April 23, 2018

On February 5th, 2016, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Ban Ki-Moon, issued a statement about the Yemeni civil war, urging the need for a resolution: "Yemen is in flames, and coalition airstrikes, in particular, continue to strike schools, hospitals, mosques and civilian infrastructure. […] We need states that are party to [the] arms trade treaty to set an example in fulfilling one of the treaty's main purposes - controlling arms flows to actors that may use them in ways that breach international humanitarian law."

 

Two years later, as the conflict still unfolds, the UN labelled the Yemeni crisis as "the world's largest humanitarian crisis with more than 22 million in need, fueled by ongoing conflict, a breakdown in public services and a collapsing economy." The enduring fighting has been driven by significant flows of weapons supplied to the primary belligerents – the Hadi government backed by the Saudi-led coalition on one side, and the Houthi armed groups on the other one.

 

 Yemeni women loyal to the Huthis hold up rifles. Source: Mohammed Huwais, AFP/Getty Images.

 

The circulation of these flows of weapons is made possible by the international arms trade, which is mostly controlled by the exports of the permanent members of the UN Security Council: China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, as well as Germany and Israel. While exports are restricted to a few states, importers of weapons are spread out across the globe.

 

The arms trade is regulated by the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which since it became effective in December 2014, obliges its state parties to assess the existence of a risk that a future arms export to another state will be used for or contribute to serious human rights violations. As stated in Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty, if the risk is present, the export shall be prohibited.


According to the Control Arms Coalition campaign, France, Germany, Italy, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK, and the US have sold arms to Saudi Arabia to an amount totaling to nearly $25bn in 2015. The types of arms currently imported by Saudi Arabia and its allies range from battle tanks, combat aircraft, missiles, large-caliber artillery systems to light weapons and ammunition, many of which have been used to commit serious human rights abuses and likely war crimes during aerial and ground attacks in Yemen.

 

  Saudi soldiers stand guard as a Saudi air force cargo plane lands in Yemen. Source: Abdullah Al-Qadry, AFP/Getty Images.

 

Following the increasing international pressure, three governments decided to halt weapons exports to countries involved in the war in Yemen since January 2018: Norway, followed by the Walloon regional authority in Belgium, and more recently, Germany.  

 

However, many state parties to the treaty such as France or the United Kingdom still export weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE despite mounting evidence of serious breaches of human rights violations and humanitarian law, posing serious doubts about these exporter states’ fulfillment of their ATT legal obligations and reveals how economic interests still prevail over the blood of innocent people.


The past months have been blighted by protests in the UK and the US, indicating how many people disagree with their respective governments' decision of continuing the arms sales in the context of the Yemeni crisis. In September 2017, during a protest at Britain’s biggest arms fair in London, the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against the Arms Trade declared: “Right now UK fighter jets and bombs are playing a central role in the destruction of Yemen; what will be the next atrocity they are used in? War, repression, and injustice are fueled by events like DSEI. It’s time to shut it down for good.”

 

How much evidence is needed to stop arms exports in the direction of Saudi Arabia and the UAE? How can it be ensured that weapons in the arms trade will not be used in significant conflicts or that their buyers will not violate human rights? Moreover, is it possible to create a truly ethical and responsible arms market?

 

Although a distinction can be made between arms sold to the states before the conflict, and arms sold during the conflict, in the latter case exporter countries bear moral responsibility for the use of these weapons, even though their liability is not direct. Providing arms to areas that are destabilised by conflicts makes the conflict deadlier and can extend its length. The presence of tensions between countries or within a country makes arms purchases prone to enhance existing tensions and the risk of an actual conflict. Additionally, the sales and persistence of exports to Saudi Arabia and its allies can express a message of international acceptance and approval of their actions. Therefore, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies are not the only ones responsible for the war crimes perpetrated in Yemen, as states that provide them with weapons, ammunition, training and assistance are also complicit in these crimes.

  

Considering that a certain level of opacity covers the arms trade, all the specific information that can be used to prove that certain arms deliveries and licenses are illegal under the ATT is difficult to obtain. For that reason, the creation of an institutional commission of inquiry is necessary to assemble all the necessary information related to the use of arms and to find out if indeed, countries like France or the UK have authorised the export of military equipment that was used to commit war crimes despite their obligation to the ATT. Control must be continuous, which is a complex and challenging task, requiring military and strategic expertise and transparency from importing countries.

 

Although some countries have decided to stop exporting arms to Saudi Arabia, others will continue to sell them because they consider it necessary to defend their allies. Nevertheless, exporter countries must try to force their partners to use the weapons they sell in an appropriate manner that will not violate international law.

 

The ATT is based on the notion of risk, and today, given the Yemeni context, the risk is present. As soon as suspicions arise that weapons are used to commit war crimes, further exports must be halted, despite the need to help the Saudi and Emirati partners, despite the necessity to sell all remaining material, and despite the financial needs. For an ethical arms market, risk and international law must prevail above economic interests. Business as usual must now come to an end.

 

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