SA arms exports to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates under scrutiny

15 June 2021 - 10:14 By Franny Rabkin
A Yemeni government fighter fires a vehicle-mounted weapon at a front-line position during fighting against Houthi fighters in Marib, Yemen, in March. File photo.
A Yemeni government fighter fires a vehicle-mounted weapon at a front-line position during fighting against Houthi fighters in Marib, Yemen, in March. File photo.
Image: REUTERS/Ali Owidha

The Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC) and Open Secrets, the non-profit organisation investigating economic crime, will be in the Pretoria high court on Tuesday afternoon over the government-issued permits that allow SA arms companies to export weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In court papers, the two organisations say these two countries are fuelling the war in Yemen, a conflict that has been called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. Yet SA has, since 2016 exported over 20% of its arms to them — in breach of the law and the constitution. 

Since the 2014 start of civil war in Yemen, 120,000 people have been killed as a direct result of the conflict, at least 2,138 of them children. Fourteen million people are at risk of starvation. It is estimated that well over 85,000 children have starved to death since the start of the war. 

“The UN Group of Experts has stated that civilians in Yemen are not starving, they are being starved by the parties to the conflict. Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular have been accused of using starvation as a method of warfare,” says the SALC’s Anneke Meerkotter in an affidavit.

The UN’s Group of Experts on Yemen has called for the complete halt on the transfer of arms to all the parties involved in the Yemen conflict, the organisations say. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Evidence has now emerged that SA-made weapons have been found at the scenes of civilian attacks in Yemen. Even though SA has not exported arms to Yemen since 2010, “it is reasonable to assume that these arms form part of the exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE”, says Meerkotter.

SALC and Open Secrets want the high court in Pretoria to put a stop to the government-issued permits that allow SA arms companies to export arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

They have urgently asked the court to order the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) to give them a list of arms companies to which they have issued permits — so they can join them as parties in the litigation. Despite some back and forth correspondence since March, the NCACC has not given them this information.

The NCACC is the body responsible for implementing the National Conventional Arms Control Act. The act says its purposes include ensuring adherence to international law and proper accountability when it comes to arms trading.

Meerkotter says: “The act draws a line in the sand between the secretive apartheid arms machinery and the postapartheid commitment to being a responsible member of the international community ... No longer would weapons be sold to the highest bidder regardless of how they would be used.”

One of the ways the legislation regulates the sale of arms by SA companies and enables their monitoring is through the granting and refusal of permits. 

The main part of the case — part B — will be for a court order setting aside the decision by the NCACC to grant the permits and asking the court to step into the NCACC’s shoes and refuse the permits. Alternatively, to send the permit applications back for reconsideration.

The act requires the committee to avoid transfers of arms where they will escalate regional conflicts or to governments that systematically violate human rights. The committee must also, under the act, adhere to international norms and standards including UN embargoes.

“The NCACC has no discretion regarding the transfer of [arms] to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms. Given the wealth of evidence regarding the violations committed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it is clearly unlawful for the NCACC to authorise the transfer,” says Meerkotter.

The urgent part of the case will be heard on Tuesday at 1pm. Open Secrets’ Hennie Van Vuuren said on Tuesday morning they were yet to receive any answering papers from the minister of defence or the NCACC. 

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