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S Africa under fire for arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE amid crimes in Yemen

The file photo shows Saudi Arabia’s forces taking part in military exercises at the Saudi-led coalition military base in Yemen's southern embattled city of Aden.

The High Court of South Africa has ordered the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) to provide a list of companies that have supplied Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with weapons found to have been used against civilians in the Yemen war.

Earlier this month, the Southern African Human Rights Litigation Centre (SALC) and Open Secrets, a non-profit organization investigating economic crime, submitted an application in the high court in Pretoria, calling for both the names of companies that are authorized to export arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as a judicial review of the NCACC’s authorizations of arms deals with the two countries.

An investigation by Open Secrets titled Profiting from Misery - South Africa’s war crimes in Yemen revealed that weapons produced in South Africa are awash in Yemen and being used by numerous parties in that war. 

According to a report by the Middle East Eye, South Africa exported between 22 percent and 31 percent of controlled items valued between $287m and $330m in 2019 and 2020, respectively, to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The hearing was over in less than half an hour, with Pretoria high court judge Norman Davis granting the order, while the NCACC refused to file court papers and turn up in court for answers.

Open Secrets’ Hennie Van Vuuren said the order meant that they had “cleared the first major legal hurdle.”

“Now we get to the urgent business of stopping the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have targeted civilians in Yemen and are accused of violating international law,” the South African online newspaper TimesLive quoted him as saying.

He said this was likely to be a lengthy process involving powerful institutions and large arms companies.

“But it is vital that we challenge a practice which has seen a profit being made from human rights abuse in countries like Yemen,” Van Vuuren added.

Meanwhile, evidence has also shown that South African weapons have been found at the scenes of attacks against civilians in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“The act draws a line in the sand between the secretive apartheid arms machinery and the post-apartheid 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,” SALC’s Anneke Meerkotter said in an affidavit.

The NCACC is responsible for implementing the National Conventional Arms Control Act that aims to ensure adherence to international law and proper accountability when it comes to arms trading.

The body has urged South Africa to stop the transfer of arms to governments that violate human rights as well as transfers that are likely to contribute to the escalation of regional military conflicts.

Saudi Arabia, backed by Western powers and regional allies, launched the devastating bombing campaign against Yemen in March 2015, with an aim to reinstall the pro-Riyadh government of ex-president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had resigned months earlier and fled to Riyadh amid the conflict with the Houthi movement.

The protracted war has killed hundreds of thousands of Yemenis and displaced millions of others. It has also destroyed the country’s vital infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, leading to the worst humanitarian crisis.

However, the unwavering resistance shown by Yemen’s Ansarullah movement and the retaliatory strikes at Saudi targets have pushed Riyadh on the back foot.

The UN’s group of experts on Yemen has demanded a complete halt to the transfer of arms to all the parties involved in the Yemen conflict, the organizations said.

In her affidavit, Meerkotter said the NCACC does not have any discretion regarding the transfer of weapons to the two countries.

“Given the wealth of evidence regarding the violations committed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it is clearly unlawful for the NCACC to authorize the transfer,” she said.

The Middle East Eye reported in 2018 that South Africa was helping Saudi Arabia develop its own arms manufacturing capacity, thus becoming an accomplice to Riyadh’s war crimes in the impoverished Arab country.

It added that South Africa had also been selling weapons to Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE since the start of the kingdom’s deadly aggression on Yemen, helping them take the lives of more civilians.

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