May 19

Can the ATT help end the conflict in Yemen?

Written by Anna Macdonald, Director of the Control Arms Secretariat

A big win in Sweden

It’s hard to go anywhere in Yemen without coming across a weapon of some sort.

Men, wearing traditional dress, often wear the Jambiya knife on a thick, embroidered belt around their waist – a symbol of wealth, status and male pride. These are ceremonial knives and rarely, if ever, used for fighting.

But it’s not these knives that are killing civilians in Yemen’s bloody civil war – it’s the guns and the bombs.

Since the ousting of President Saleh in 2011, Yemen has been in a downward spiral of violence. Intervention by outside powers has fuelled the conflict and made life for ordinary Yemenis even harder – and uncertain.

Now the short-lived truce is over, and the sound of bombing is echoing again, as the Saudi-led coalition have resumed air strikes.

Reports of young children wielding AK-47s at checkpoints instead of going to school are common as Houthi rebels from northern Yemen, in alliance with ex-President Saleh and many of the armed forces, are fighting southern separatist groups, as well as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninisula (AQAP). This is fast becoming a sectarian struggle as Saudi Arabia and allies back Sunni groups, and Iran backs the Shia Houthis.

A constant flow of arms and ammunition to all sides of the conflict is fuelling the cycle of violence. According to the UN, more than 1,400 people have been killed and close to 6000 people injured, roughly half of whom have been civilians, since the conflict erupted in mid-March 2015.

And an estimated 450,000 Yemenis have been uprooted from their homes joining another 330,000 people, who were previously displaced.

Yemeni government forces loyal to President Hadi, the anti-government Houthi milita, and the foreign coalition of countries supporting the Yemeni government and currently engaged in the military campaign to oust the Houthi militia are all regularly replenishing their arsenals.

The US has expedited shipments of arms and ammunition to the Yemeni government and coalition partners like Saudi Arabia and UAE. It’s hard to know exactly what is in these shipments or where exactly they have ended up – transportation is utterly lacking in transparency. But they are believed to be in addition to ongoing deals with the Yemeni government, and to include nearly $500m worth of arms and equipment such as hundreds of rifles and pistols, Humvees and 1.25m rounds of small arms ammunition.

Coalition partners like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar have all been involved in sizable arms purchases in recent years, the vast majority of which has been sold by the United States. There is also recently documented evidence of the use of cluster munitions against Houthi forces by Saudi Arabian, UAE, and Yemeni government forces – weapons banned by 116 countries under the Convention on Cluster Munitions. And the UN has documented the use of child soldiers, the targeting of schools and hospitals and other abuses.

And there are reports that Iran has been providing arms and advice to the Houthi forces, with supporting data as far back as 2009, though again, this is hard to independently verify.

Yemen is a tinderbox and what is certain in this unpredictable conflict is that it is ordinary people who are suffering the most.

The Arms Trade Treaty entered into force six months ago. It will take time for it to be effectively implemented but the conflict in Yemen illustrates why the ATT is urgently needed.

If the conflict persists, a conscientious application of the treaty’s risk assessment obligation could put a stop to future arms sales to Yemen – and to countries involved in military action in Yemen. The provisions of the treaty will also compel arms sellers to review their deals that are currently in progress in light of the deteriorating situation.

With so much irrefutable evidence of the risk of diversion and misuse of arms, any risk assessment against the ATT’s criteria would conclude that arms shipments cannot continue to be delivered to any warring party.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have often reported human rights abuses in Yemen. A recent HRW report looked at abduction and torture of journalists by several parties to the conflict. Houthi, AQAP, state security forces and other militias have all been accused of attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructures. Some have committed kidnap for ransom to finance their armed struggle.

The Saudi Air Force has been accused of committing breaches of international humanitarian law, and war crimes, by bombing a displaced persons camp and also with air attacks in civilian areas of San’aa and other towns without any warning or attempt to prevent the killing of civilians. Whatever the legal status of such attacks, using such heavy explosive weapons in populated areas such at these exposes civilians to an unacceptable risk.

Evoking the ATT to stem the flow of arms will clearly not solve the political problems of Yemen, which go back to independence and beyond. But until the flow of arms and ammunition into this troubled country starts to cease there can never be an end to the conflict unfolding in Yemen

The ATT was created for just this reason – to halt the barely-checked supply of weapons to conflict zones around the world. It needs to be implemented – and fast – so that ordinary Yemenis can start the mammoth task of rebuilding their lives.


Anna Macdonald is the Director of the Control Arms Secretariat. She has worked on the Arms Trade Treaty since 2002.

Follow her on Twitter @annamac33.