Protesters contend that selling weapons to world’s largest arms importer violates 2014 Arms Trade Treaty
With little fanfare, the Bahri Yanbu set sail from the Port of Damman in Saudi Arabia at 12:50 a.m. local time on November 12. It reached the Port of Houston in Texas on January 6, followed by stops in Wilmington, Delaware, and Baltimore.
However, things began escalating on January 21 as the Saudi-registered and -flagged vessel left North America bound for Bremerhaven, Germany: European activists, with Amnesty’s International support, went to court to stop the Bahri Yanbu from docking in Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, France and Italy.
It docked in Bremerhaven on February 2 and was due in the UK port of Essex on February 5.
Belgium was taken off the itinerary after three NGOs – La Ligue des Droits de l’Hommes, La Coordination Nationale d’Action pour la Paix and Vredesactie – successfully filed lawsuits. Protests are planned in Cherbourg, France, and Genoa, where dockworkers say they will refuse to handle the ship, something they have done in the past.
Patrick Wilcken, a researcher on the arms trade at Amnesty International, says that while the vessel’s cargo manifest remains unknown due to a delay in the release of shipping data, it is believed to be carrying arms and other military supplies to be used in the conflict in Yemen.
“There are grounds for suspicion given the track record of that ship and the hundreds of millions [of dollars] in equipment it has shipped in the past on similar routes from North America, stopping in European ports, then going on to the Gulf,” he told The Media Line.
Wilcken says the protests are part of a broader anti-weapons sentiment in Europe.
“There’s a very strong disarmament movement that is trying to enforce existing [regulations] embodied in the Arms Trade Treaty and national laws, which have provisions that states should not be supplying weapons if there is a risk that the weapons will be misused in conflict,” he said. “We see with clarity that these weapons are being misused.”
Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher in the Arms and Military Expenditure Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), explains that the Saudi method of force against Houthi rebels in Yemen does not sit well with Europeans.
“Saudi Arabia has used arms in a way that is regularly considered a violation of international humanitarian [law],” he told The Media Line. “Basically, they [the Saudis] have bombed… civilian targets in Yemen, which is not allowed in any circumstances whatsoever.”
The United Nations-sponsored Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) of 2014 established a governing structure to regulate international arms sales and thus lessen illegal activity. However, Wezeman says it is unclear whether selling weapons to Saudi Arabia while knowing they will be used in Yemen is a violation.
“The judgement based on the legality of any deal lies with the individual country,” he said. “The argument made by the NGOs [in Europe] is that it violates the basic principles of the treaty but there is no general ATT court” with standardized guidelines that they can turn to.
The ATT has been ratified by more than 100 counties. The United States, the largest arms exporter in the world, is one of 30 signatories, which is a step below ratification. In the US, congressional approval is required for the treaty to have any legal teeth.
According to Wezeman, Riyadh has been the world’s largest arms importer for the past five years. This is concurrent with Saudi Arabia entering the Yemen conflict in an alliance with other Sunni countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates, to attack the Iran-backed Houthis, who kicked Yemen’s internationally recognized government out of the capital Sanaa in early 2015.
While some European countries like Denmark and Germany have stopped or reduced weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Nabeel Nowairah, a research associate at the Washington-based Gulf International Forum, contends that this will have no impact on the kingdom’s Yemen intervention.
“I think arms sales in itself has little impact on the decision of Saudi involvement in Yemen. The kingdom can always find sources for its weaponry needs. The only impact I would say is related to the Saudis’ international image,” he told The Media Line.
Europeans are not the only ones upset by the travels of the Bahri Yanbu.
“This infamous ship is constantly transporting killing tools from European countries to Saudi Arabia, which is then using them in the bloody conflict in Yemen,” Yemeni journalist Fares Alhemyari told The Media Line.
“These weapons are used to target the Houthi armed group in Yemen,” he explained, “but they usually miss their targets, causing [civilian] casualties.”
Sama’a Al-Hamdani, an analyst and director of the Yemen Cultural Institute in Washington, contends that while the country has been roughly evenly split over Saudi involvement, more people are becoming opposed as time goes on.
“Yemenis’ view of Saudi Arabia is divided and constantly changing as the dynamics of the war evolve,” she told The Media Line.
“Certainly, at the start of the war, some viewed the Saudi-led Arab coalition as a ‘rescuer’ of the [legitimate] Yemeni state. However, as the war dragged out… many Yemenis began to feel like they were part of a larger conflict that doesn’t really concern their local demands.”
SIPRI’s Wezeman notes that the amount of weapons Riyadh exports has increased over the past decade, which he says indicates that the weapons are not meant for use solely in Yemen.
“Many of the deliveries taking place right now are based on contracts and orders that were signed up to 10 years ago,” he said, noting, for example, that Washington and Riyadh signed a contract in 2011.
“Saudi Arabia does not have the arms industry that can produce the types of arms it wants,” he explained. “It certainly can’t produce items such as combat aircraft, tanks and artillery.”
Wezeman says that one of the goals of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan, which is aimed at weaning the kingdom from depending solely on oil for income, is to produce 50% of the weapons it needs.
He believes that this goal will be impossible, though there could be changes in how Saudi Arabia obtains its weapons – something that by itself might limit the negative publicity garnered by protests over the Bahri Yanbu.
“Instead of [producing its own Saudi-designed weapons]… it is likely that at least some will be assembled or produced [under] license in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “There will be a change if Saudi Arabia tries… to do more inside the country itself based on foreign knowhow, components and materials.”