The departure from French waters of a Saudi cargo ship without picking up French arms is a small victory for public efforts to stop possible French complicity in Saudi war crimes in Yemen. But the French government has only double down in insisting that it will continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. None of the rationalizations offered by the French government justifies this prioritization of arms profits over human rights principles.
The Saudi-led coalition’s bombing and blockading of Yemeni civilians since March 2015 is a central cause of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. With the best weapons that money can buy, Saudi-led aircraft have repeatedly hit Yemeni markets, hospitals, schools, funerals, even a school bus filled with children. Often after these deadly attacks on civilians the coalition promises a self-investigation, which if any result is announced, is almost invariably exculpatory. No one is known to have been prosecuted for unlawful airstrikes. Promises of improvement are refuted by more killing of civilians.
To make matters worse, the Saudi-led coalition has blockaded western Yemen, decimating the economy and leaving millions on the brink of famine. The ostensible aim of cutting off arms to the Houthi rebels opposed to the Saudi-backed Yemeni government has caused disproportionate harm to civilians who are facing mass starvation. A United Nations-brokered ceasefire in the main western Yemeni port of Hodeidah raises the prospect of relief, but implementation is only beginning. Too few of the urgently needed humanitarian aid and commercial imports, including food and fuel, have been getting through.
There is growing international outrage about the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia under these circumstances. Germany, Denmark, Finland, and Norway have announced an end to such sales. US President Donald Trump has made clear that he prioritizes the jobs created by Saudi arms sales over the Yemeni civilians killed by them, but few have openly endorsed this inhumane logic.
So where does France stand? In a recent interview, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian offered several justifications for continuing the arms sales. Other officials have advanced additional rationales. None holds water.
First, the French government claims that Houthi forces, backed in part by Iran, started the war, and the Saudi-led coalition is simply defending the Yemeni government. A variation of the theme is that France needs to help the coalition fight terrorism. But the arguments for fighting the war are entirely distinct from the way in which the war is fought. If the Saudi-led coalition were conducting lawful strikes against military targets and seriously investigating and prosecuting any alleged violations, those selling them arms would not need to worry about complicity in war crimes. But it has long been clear that isn’t the case.
Second, the French government says that the arms being sold to Saudi Arabia are pursuant to old contracts, implying that they were entered into before the current conflict in Yemen began. In fact, Disclose revealed that the most recent contract was signed in December 2018, well after the coalition’s misuse of weapons was evident. In any event, contracts can be broken, particularly if keeping them means violating France’s obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty, which is meant to prevent signatories’ weapons from being used to commit war crimes or mass human rights abuses. Does the sanctity of a contract really take precedence over the sanctity of civilian life?
Third, the government claims that French arms are being used only “defensively,” not for attacks in Yemen, and that “there is no evidence that weapons have been used against civilians.” That is factually untrue. Recently leaked documents show that French-made Caesar howitzers have been used to “back up loyalist troops and Saudi armed forces in their progression into Yemeni territory,” and that the “population affected by potential artillery fire [is] 436,370 people.” In addition, coalition attack aircraft are equipped with a laser-targeting system called Damocles, made by Thales. French ships have been sold to the Saudi and the Emirati navies and used to enforce the crippling blockade.
More to the point, it shouldn’t matter whether French arms are used offensively or defensively. The Saudi military is responsible for large-scale loss of civilian life in Yemen in violation of international humanitarian law. Any weapons sales bolsters that military, contributing to the abuses. France and any other nation respectful of human rights should have nothing to do with such sales.
Fourth, although the French government is less blatant than Trump, some say that French jobs weigh in the balance. The French arms industry also gains big from sales to Saudi Arabia. But these arms sales beg urgent questions. How many Yemeni civilians must die in unlawful airstrikes before the French jobs they create cannot be justified? How many Yemeni civilians must starve from a cruel blockade before the French military establishment stops trying to benefit from it?
These issues facing France are all the more pressing given the need to reinforce international norms when they are under attack, as Le Drian and President Emmanuel Macron have, in other contexts, eloquently stated. But the threat does not come from only the far right. International norms are being flouted as well when governments underwrite the unlawful bombing and blockading of Yemeni civilians.
No one pretends these issues are easy. Yes, many arms today are produced with parts from multiple countries, but if France is to contribute components, it should insist on full compliance with international law rather than the lowest common denominator before arms are sold. Yes, if European arms suppliers end their complicity in Saudi war crimes, Russian suppliers or others may step into the breach, but their disregard for the rule of law is no excuse for France to debase itself. The only decent thing for the French government to do is to end all arms sales to Saudi Arabia now—until the killing of Yemeni civilians stops and the coalition credibly investigates the serious violations committed.
This text is slightly altered from the French language version published today in Libération.