Four political groups in European parliament urge EU foreign policy chief to propose arms embargo over Yemen campaign
The European Union is under mounting pressure from MEPs to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the Gulf state’s bombing campaign in Yemen.
The leaders of four political groups in the European parliament have urged the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, to propose an EU arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, because of the devastating war in Yemen that has left nearly 20 million people in need of humanitarian aid.
In a letter to Mogherini, seen by the Guardian, the MEP leaders accuse the EU of flouting its own rules, by selling weapons to Saudi Arabia in defiance of a 2008 common code on military exports. Mogherini has the right to propose an arms embargo, but would need to win the backing of EU member states, including the UK, one of the biggest arms exporters to the Gulf kingdom.
The latest call for a ban would run into immediate opposition from the British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, who urged MPs on Wednesday not to criticise Saudi Arabia in the interests of a fighter jet deal.
The EU code on arms exports lists eight grounds for turning down an arms export licence, including respect for the obligations of international organisations, such as the UN. In particular EU member states must show “special caution and vigilance” when issuing licences to countries where serious violations of human rights have been established by the UN or other bodies.
The UN has described Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis: in September it agreed to send war crimes investigators to the devastated country to examine alleged human-rights violations committed by both sides during the two-and-a-half year civil war.
After Saudi Arabia launched a bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels in March 2015, at least 10,000 people were killed in the first 22 months of the conflict, the UN humanitarian office said, almost double other estimates. At least 2,100 people have died from cholera, while thousands more are being infected with the disease every week following the collapse of water supplies and sanitation.
Bodil Valero, Swedish Green party MEP, said the EU could not continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia when faced with “the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world”.
“We have our common European values, we have a common position [on arms sales], we shouldn’t sell arms to a country that doesn’t respect humanitarian law or human rights,” said Valero, who drafts the parliament’s annual arms control resolution.
“I think it is clear we are breaking the common position, at least when it comes to new products, new licences,” said Valero. “We should say no to selling weapons to Saudi Arabia because the common position wouldn’t allow it.”
France, followed by the UK, issued the most valuable arms-export licences to Saudi Arabia in 2015, according to the latest EU arms export report, which shows that 17 EU member states sold arms to the Gulf state
The UK issued licences to Saudi Arabia worth €3.3bn (£2.9bn), but did not reveal the value of weapons shipped to the country that year. France issued licences worth €16.9bn, but the value of shipments was €899m.
EU member states refused seven arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, but the report does not name the country or countries that did so, or why.
The letter to Mogherini states: “It is our view that any such [arms] exports to Saudi Arabia are in direct violation of at least criterion two of the common position in regard to the country’s involvement in grave breaches of humanitarian law as established by competent UN authorities.”
It is signed by the leaders of the Socialists, the Liberals, the European United Left and the Greens, who together have 48% of MEPs in the European parliament.
The parliament passed a symbolic resolution in favour of an arms embargo in February 2016, but member states, which hold the levers of EU foreign policy, have so far ignored calls for action.
As the EU’s foreign policy chief, Mogherini can put the issue on the agenda, but is reluctant to do so unless it is likely to succeed.
The UK will no longer be bound by the EU’s arms export code after Brexit, but could align itself with the bloc. Norway, Canada and Albania are among eight non-EU countries that have chosen to sign-up to EU arms export policy.
A spokeswoman for Mogherini said:“The final decision whether to authorise or deny an export remains at national discretion of member states. Decisions on issuing an arms embargo lie fully with the council [of foreign ministers]; deciding an arms embargo would require political agreement by unanimity within the council.”
On Yemen, she added: “our position is that a political solution is the only way out of this conflict… The EU continues to support the peace process, to supply humanitarian assistance and will play an active role in a coordinated response of the international community to address post conflict needs of the Yemeni population.”