Yemen is the locus of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving 80% of the population in need of humanitarian help.
Schools, factories and hospitals have been destroyed and there is evidence that civilians have been deliberately targeted. It’s a complex conflict with abuses on all sides. In September 2020, a UN report concluded that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with the government of Yemen and secessionist forces, have committed acts that may amount to war crimes. These actions include targeting and murdering civilians, rape and sexual violence, torture, and use of child soldiers.
A new report by Open Secrets, a non-profit group investigating and exposing economic crimes, shows SA arms companies have profited from the Yemen conflict to the tune of R11 billion since 2010, most of this coming since 2014.
In 2015 and 2016, two years after the conflict began, nearly half of all SA’s approved weapons exports were bound for Saudi Arabia and UAE, two states that are shoring up the Yemeni government.
“In 2019, there was a brief respite from South African complicity in arming these warring parties when a dispute over the terms of the end-user certificate (EUC) delayed the granting of export permits to several countries, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” says the report.
Open Secrets explains that an end-user certificate is intended to prevent munitions from ending up just anywhere. It effectively means that a purchasing country needs to agree that the munitions bought will not be transferred any further without the selling country’s permission.
The report focuses mainly on Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM), a South African-based joint venture between Denel and Rheinmetall Waffe Munition GmbH (which holds a 51% stake in the JV).
RDM has been supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia and UAE since before the conflict began, and has set up a munitions factory in Saudi Arabia that produces, among other things, mortars that are believed to have been used in human rights abuses.
It’s difficult to identify the source of munitions because they fragment when exploded and local forces prevent local civil society groups from retrieving fragments for identification. But Open Secrets says there is compelling evidence to suggest these weapons were used in the 2018 attack on the port city of Hodeidah by Saudi and UAE forces and their allies attempting to dislodge Houthi resistance fighters.
Denel-built armoured vehicles were spotted being used by militia groups allied to the UAE, and fragments of munitions most probably made in SA were detected by UN inspectors and investigative journalism group Bellingcat.
When asked to respond to these claims by Open Secrets, “RDM declined to provide a response to this specific question, saying only that it applied to the NCACC (National Conventional Arms Control Committee) for all necessary permissions to export weapons from South Africa. Open Secrets prompted RDM to provide an answer to the specific question on the Hodeidah attack, but it has chosen not to do so,” says the report.
By far the biggest supplier of arms to the conflict is the US, followed by Britain, France and Spain. SA ranks fourteenth in terms of arms supply.
“For all of these countries and the companies based in each, the war in Yemen has been an endless bonanza of profit as the thirst for bombs and guns never ceases,” says Open Secrets.
Rheinmetall faces a ban in Germany against exporting any weapons to Saudi Arabia, in large part due to concerns about human rights violations committed by Saudi Arabia and their partners in Yemen. While the report focuses on RDM, all roads lead back to Germany, says Open Secrets. “Ultimately Rheinmetall Waffe Munition GmbH, and executives in Germany higher up in Rheinmetall’s corporate food chain, are effectively responsible for RDM’s operations in South Africa and so they too should be held accountable for human rights violations.”
The NCACC is guilty of regulatory failure over an extended period of time.
When asked to respond to these claims, the committee revealed “not only a lackadaisical approach to regulation but an absolute failure to appreciate the seriousness of their task and the magnitude of the consequences.”
The NCACC is unique in that it is made up of ministers and deputy ministers appointed directly by the president. Its most crucial regular function is to assess and decide on whether to grant or refuse export permits for weapons and other controlled items. The law requires the defence minister to appoint an independent inspectorate to ensure the weapons conform with international and local laws, treaties and regulations.
Despite being swaddled in laws and regulations, the evidence suggests that arms companies face few questions from the NCACC when applying for permits to enter contracts with foreign states and export weapons. The NCACC’s annual reports show that between 2015 and 2019, it approved 1 108 applications by South African companies for permission to enter supply contracts with foreign persons and companies. In that period, it denied only 10 applications. In both 2017 and 2019, not a single application was denied, says Open Secrets.
“By law, the NCACC may not permit the export of weapons where those weapons will contribute to human rights violations or worsening conflict. It must take into account ‘all publicly available information’ when making these decisions.”
The reports concludes that the NCACC is failing to uphold its mandate, given the well-documented reports of atrocities in Yemen.
As for the role of inspectors in the arms trade, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula conceded that democratic South Africa has only ever conducted one inspection of exported defence equipment – “hardly a commitment to enforcing the regulatory framework,” says the report.
The NCACC appears to be weak under pressure from arms producers seeking exports permits. When the regulator attempted to enforce tighter controls on exports – by allowing inspectors to ascertain whether SA arms ended up in the wrong hands – the arms producers pushed back, and got he NCACC to settle on a more accommodating wording which would allow for a “diplomatic process” rather than inspection by a seasoned weapons expert. In no time at all, exports to the region were back on track.
Co-author of the report, Michael Marchant, says the Middle East has become a cash cow for arms producers from all over the world, particularly as the conflict has escalated. “From a South African perspective, we can see from the figures that exports to those countries engaged in the Yemen conflict exploded from 10% to 15% before 2013 to 38% and more than 40% after 2014 when the conflict really picked up.“
The human costs of this conflict are staggering: in 2020, the United Nations put the death count at 233 000, while Human Rights Watch estimated that up to 14 million people were at risk of starvation – something Saudi Arabia was using as a tactic in the conflict. By the end of 2019, roughly 18 million Yemenis had no drinking water and more than a million were impacted by a cholera outbreak.
The Yemeni revolution was part of the wider Arab Spring that swept the Middle East in 2011. The Houthi rebels and their allies took over large parts of the north and west of the country in March 2015, prompting Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to retreat to Aden and declare it the provisional capital.
Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen is framed as a way of preventing Iranian “aggression and expansion” in the area, and though Iran’s involvement has grown in recent years, the Houthis are a home-grown movement pushed closer to Iran by the escalating war.
Open Secrets concludes by arguing SA should stop approving export permits for SA weapons destined for Saudi Arabia, the UAE or another party involved in the conflict; NCACC should provide quarterly reports to Parliament (instead of filing often two years late); make human rights central of SA’s foreign policy (instead of mouthing off about our “concerns” about the crisis while allowing arms to gush into the region); get the Hawks to investigate RDM for its possible complicity in war and other crimes; and get SA civil society to stand in solidarity with the people of Yemen.
Open Secrets wrote to RDM in December 2020 and asked questions about its exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as on the value of contracts to these countries since 2015, and whether measures were put in place to ensure its clients did not violate the provisions of the end user certificates they are required by law to sign.
According to Open Secrets, RDM declined to answer these specific questions. Instead, the company’s CEO Jan-Patrick Helmsen offered a brief blanket response to the issues raised. Helmsen described the South African munitions as ‘highly regulated’, pointing out that:
“RDM can only supply its products after receipt of the required national South African governmental approval, such as a marketing and contracting permit from the NCACC and the required export permits from the Directorate of Conventional Arms Control (DCAC). RDM also needs to adhere to various other national and international legislation. RDM will at all times adhere to the South African legislation and its requirements. It must be noted that these requirements are at par with all our international counterparts and RDM will always adhere to South African legislation and its requirements.
“RDM cannot deliver its products to its clients until receipt of a EUC and an export permit from the DCAC has been issued. The South African government, in terms of Clause 4.3 of the issued End-User Certificate, also maintains the right to attend to inspections of such munitions after delivery with an inter-governmental bilateral agreement.
“RDM needs to comply with stringent internal Rheinmetall compliance checks and approval procedures prior to receiving authorisation to enter into supply agreements. These compliance checks are based on international best practice and make use of international processes and systems to confirm that all information is correct and that no compliance risks will arise.”
As to why RDM would not engage with the specifics about their exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, RDM simply stated that: “In line with industry norms and requirements, RDM is not at liberty to share any information relating to agreements entered into with its clients. RDM is committed to being an ethical corporate citizen, which entails always abiding by the laws of the Republic of South Africa. As such, RDM strictly adheres to and is restricted by all relevant legislation, including export regulations, of the Republic of South Africa.”
Some 21 questions were also sent to the NCACC by Open Secrets, which says the specific questions were ignored. The following reply was received instead:
“From the ensuing criteria it would be clear that the NCACC would rely on various South African Organs of State mandated to provide information that is analysed and refined to meet the strict requirements of s15 of the Act. The NCACC relies on Official sources for its risk assessment. Key among these entities are Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) State Security Agency (SSA) and Defence Intelligence (DI).
“Therefore, what informs other countries in relation to Yemen and the possible involvement of Rheinmetall Denel Munitions of Germany (sic) with regard to using their subsidiary in South Africa to procure controlled items, while it is noted is no concern of the NCACC, unless flagged as such.
“South Africa receives queries related to South African produced and exported controlled items, through the South African Mission at the United Nations in New York. Entities that do verification and who provide evidence are being responded to without fail. This means that this office will deal with all verified claims and as per usual respond through our Mission at the UN. Therefore the Hodeidah matter has not been directed to this office. The cost and the exploration of insufficient/unsupported claims would render efforts at addressing the concern(s) or such claim(s) not feasible and not effective.”
To which Open Secrets replies: “This is frankly a staggering admission of the NCACC’s failure to fulfil its legal mandate, and a feeble attempt to pass on responsibility to other parts of the state.”