Western arms manufacturers must shoulder much of the blame for the disaster in Yemen

Western arms manufacturers must shoulder much of the blame for the disaster in Yemen

Pam Bailey
Editor, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, life for the beleaguered Yemenis is about to become much worse. In the last few days of the U.S. Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthis, one side of the war that is destroying in Yemen, as a terrorist organization. The impact: Many humanitarian groups will no longer be able to distribute the aid that has been keeping Yemenis alive

The irony, however, is that, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), most of the civilian deaths (67%) have been caused by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia. And enabling those war casualties are largely American-made munitions and other equipment. So, who exactly are the terrorists here?   

In recognition of this fact, over 200 organizations around the world will come together on 25 January for a virtual event they call the World Says No to War on Yemen Global Day of Action. One of the groups’ demands is a stop to weapons and other military support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two main partners in the coalition that has waged war against the Houthi faction in Yemen since 2015. Their targets are both the governments that authorize the sale of the munitions and the companies that make and profit from them.

The companies that profit the most from the ongoing war are three American businesses: Raytheon, General Dynamics and Boeing. Raytheon and General Dynamics have sold $5 billion and $1.3 billion, respectively, of arms to the Saudi-led coalition. Weapon remnants from each company were found in the wreckage of numerous airstrikes throughout Yemen. In the first two years of the conflict alone, pieces of Raytheon weapons were found at 12 different sites where civilians were attacked.

While outgoing President Trump has done much to facilitate this bloody business (lifting restrictions imposed by former President Barack Obama and vetoing a Senate attempt to ban sales of arms for use in Yemen), some pundits expect the “revolving door” nature of American politics to perpetuate the favored status of arms manufacturers under the new Joe Biden administration. Retired four-star General Lloyd Austin, Biden’s pick as defense secretary, served on Raytheon’s board since 2016. (He is not alone: Of the at least 380 former high-ranking Department of Defense officials who became lobbyists or senior executives in 2018, around one quarter joined the top five defense contractors, according to the Project On Government Oversight: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman.) 

Ending weapon sales to Saudi Arabia would cost the U.S. arms industry its biggest global customer, and to do so, Congress has to oppose an industry that pours millions into the campaigns of lawmakers of both parties.

It’s true that by law, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs must approve arms sales by American companies to foreign governments. And U.S. law prohibits sales to countries that indiscriminately kill civilians. This is used as “cover” by the likes of Raytheon, General Dynamics, Lockheed and Boeing. But it’s also true that ending sales to Saudi Arabia would cost the U.S. arms industry its biggest global customer, and to do so, Congress has to oppose an industry that pours millions into the campaigns of lawmakers of both parties. According to one review, 51 members of Congress and their spouses own between $2.3 and $5.8 million worth of stocks in companies that are among the top 30 defense contractors in the world.

This is how the process works: Recently, the U.S. State Department notified Congress that it will issue a license to Raytheon for the sale of 7,500 precision-guided, air-to-ground munitions valued at $478 million to Saudi Arabia—an act likely to occur before the Biden administration takes office on 20 January. Raytheon then will be able to sell the weapons directly to the Saudi government. The State Department notice also suggests that Raytheon plans to expand its existing business relationship with the kingdom to include manufacture of munitions overseas.

The U.S. government and its mega companies may be significant drivers of the bloodshed in Yemen, but entities in other countries are complicit as well. While some European states have halted or restricted exports of military equipment to the Saudi Arabian-led coalition due to concerns about international humanitarian law, others have continued selling arms used in the war. One of them is the UK.

Five business councils were established under Brexit, the process through which the UK recently exited the European Union. Each is charged providing advice on post-Brexit business opportunities. The man picked to be the first co-lead of the industrial, infrastructure and manufacturing council was Roger Carr, chair of one of the UK’s biggest arms companies, BAE Systems. His leadership role was shared with Ian Davis, chair of Rolls-Royce, a company that supplies engines for many of the UK’s military aircraft. And British arms sales to human rights-abusing regimes have skyrocketed as a result.

Analysis by campaigners at the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) found that exports to regimes that the Foreign Office called “human rights priority countries” were valued at £173 million in 2018. By just a year later, that figure reached £849 million. No wonder that since the Brexit vote, armsmakers have been bullish about their prospects.

“One thing we can be certain of,” Andrew Smith of CAAT told Byline Times, “is that Brexit is likely to see the role of human rights in foreign policy diminished even further as the UK pursues quick deals with the Gulf Cooperation Council members.

The UK is already estimated to have exported at least £6.5 billion in arms to the Saudi-led coalition since the war began in 2015 and that has increased every year. In fact, during the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, multi-million-pound contracts were signed by the Ministry of Defence, surging by more than £30 million.

Without these ongoing weapons transfers (along with regular maintenance services), the Saudi coalition’s ability to prosecute its war would be significantly degraded. “We can stop providing munitions, and they could run out of munitions, and then it would be impossible to keep the war going,” says Jonathan Caverley, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

American lawmaker Rep. Jim McGovern is even more blunt: “The bottom line is: We know for a fact that they’re bombing school buses, bombing weddings, bombing funerals, and innocent people are being murdered. The question now is: Are we going to just issue a press release and say, ‘We’re horrified,’ or is there going to be a consequence?”

It’s time to hold both government and businesses accountable.

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