Houthi rebels inspect the damage after an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition hit the presidential palace in Yemen in 2017. Devastation is wrought in Yemen by the coalition with some of the munitions supplied by South Africa. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)
On August 2, the bustling al-Mehout fish market in the Yemeni city of Hodeida was bombed. Fifty-five civilians, mostly fishermen, fish sellers and shoppers, were killed and more than 170 others were injured. The wounded were taken to the adjacent Al-Thawrah hospital.
A second, even more terrible attack was launched, this time directed at the hospital entrance, targeting ambulances and paramedics attending to the injured from the fish market. Nine people were killed there.
The massacres, which constitute a war crime, took place almost 6 000km away from South Africa, but the origins of the mortars used in the Hodeida attack may well be closer to home.
According to arms analyst Nick Waters, munitions fragments found at the scene of the Hodeida bombings share several characteristics with the distinctive 120mm mortar bombs manufactured by Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM), which supplies this ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the two most active warring countries in the coalition that has made Yemen the site of the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis.
Both RDM and its parent company in Germany were contacted for comment and asked to provide images of their 120mm mortar ammunition so that it could be compared with the munitions fragments found in Hodeida. Neither responded to these requests.
The aim of the Saudi campaign in Yemen is to restore the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, which was toppled by the Houthi rebel group. Three years of devastating airstrikes on hospitals, schools and markets have resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 000 Yemenis, according to independent estimates. A blockade is starving Yemen of imports of food, medicine and fuel. Without fuel, water cannot be pumped from boreholes. Unsanitary conditions have led to outbreaks of disease, including the world’s worst cholera outbreak in modern history.
Despite the humanitarian destruction that the war has brought, South African weapons companies are eager to supply Saudi Arabia and its allies with weapons for a campaign characterised by human rights violations, including war crimes, according to the United Nations. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, South African companies sold arms worth more than R3-billion to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), the South African authority that oversees arms exports and regulates South African weapons companies, has been lax about ensuring that local arms dealers comply with its regulations.
In July 2015, television footage showed a Denel drone being shot down over Yemen. When asked what South African weapons were doing in Yemen, NCACC boss Jeff Radebe simply pointed to possible Saudi breaches of end-user certificates. He did not investigate this. Last year, the Parliament’s joint standing committee on defence asked Radebe to provide a report on South Africa’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He agreed to do so but never did. The committee ignored requests for comment.
Providing cover for war crimes
By turning a blind eye to evidence of Saudi violations of its regulations, the NCACC is violating South African and international statutes. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Act No 41 of 2002 states that the NCACC must “avoid transfers of conventional arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
Under the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which South Africa ratified in 2014, it has an obligation to halt the supply of weapons if these are likely to be used for violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.
Neither the NCACC nor the South African government can claim ignorance of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, which has been widely documented by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Aware of this and having been alerted to the use of South African weapons in Yemen, no steps have been taken to investigate at the very least whether the Saudis are using our weapons to commit war crimes in Yemen.
We are also encouraging others to turn a blind eye. On September 28, South Africa abstained from voting on a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution, which called for a probe into human rights violations in Yemen by both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels.
The department of international relations and co-operation has issued just two statements about Yemen. The first was issued on November 8 last year, almost three years after the Saudi bombing campaign began, and was only in response to the firing of a missile towards Riyadh. The missile was intercepted and there were no casualties.
Bizarrely, the department considered an intercepted missile an “escalation” of the conflict, but not the 933 Yemeni civilians who were killed by the Saudi-led coalition in the 13 months before that.
A month later, the department issued the second statement after the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh, former president of Yemen. It expressed concern about the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen, but never once mentioned that a Saudi-led coalition was largely responsible for it.
Why shield Saudi Arabia?
The answer may lie in growing business ties between Pretoria and Riyadh. On September 29, a day after South Africa abstained on the UNHRC vote, Minister of Trade and Investment Rob Davies co-chaired the South Africa/Saudi Arabia Joint Economic Commission. He was following up on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s $10-billion investment pledge made to President Cyril Ramaphosa in July. Bin Salman is the architect of the Yemen war and has ruthlessly consolidated power in the kingdom by rooting out dissidents and critics.
On October 4 this year, the state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries, announced that it was considering taking an equity stake in cash-strapped Denel. Before that, in 2013, it began discussions with Denel about developing a drone programme. By last year, the kingdom had unveiled a Saudi combat drone, resembling Denel’s design.
Yemeni killings: Made in SA?
Saudi Arabia is the world’s third-largest weapons buyer and spent $70-billion on arms last year alone. Keen to cash in, our weapons companies don’t just want to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, they also want to help Riyadh develop its own arms industry. By 2030, the Saudis want half their weapons to be manufactured locally.
In 2016, former president Jacob Zuma officially opened the Al-Kharj military facility in Riyadh. Built in collaboration with RDM, it is expected to produce 600 mortar missiles a day and heavyweight aircraft bombs. South African Ivor Ichikowitz’s Paramount Group, a defence and aerospace business, is also in talks with Saudi Arabia about transferring technology and establishing production plants.
In terms of complicity in war crimes, this is far more dangerous than merely selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. South African companies run the risk of assisting Saudi Arabia to establish factories that are capable of creating internationally banned cluster munitions. Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and has previously used cluster munitions in Yemen. So the possibility of South Africa being complicit in war crimes increases significantly.
Activist Terry Crawford-Browne has already filed a complaint against Zuma and the RDM with the commission of inquiry into state capture. He is arguing that the two parties are complicit in Saudi war crimes committed in Yemen after the factory was opened.
International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu seems committed to the implementation of a human rights-based foreign policy, and continuing South Africa’s legacy of internationalism and just international relations. At her most recent media briefing, she declared: “I don’t know a country that has as robust a watch over human rights matters as South Africa.”
But Sisulu cannot talk about human rights while her colleagues at the department of defence and the NCACC allow South African weapons dealers to shower Saudi Arabia with high-tech weaponry, and assist Bin Salman to develop weapons that may be used to commit war crimes in Yemen.
In June, the Saudi-led coalition bombed a cholera treatment centre, even though Doctors Without Borders had shared the centre’s co-ordinates at least 12 times with the coalition. On August 9, a school bus out on an excursion was struck by the coalition, killing 40 children.
At what point will the NCACC and the South African authorities declare that the price is too high and stop arming Saudi Arabia and its allies?
South Africa will have to find a way to balance its economic priorities with its commitment to human rights and international law. Our government needs to ask what price tag has been attached to the investments that Ramaphosa secured from Saudi Arabia. If our conduct at the UNHRC vote is anything to go by, then the cost is silence and complicity in the face of Saudi war crimes.
In January, South Africa will take up its nonpermanent seat at the UN Security Council. We will be in a position to raise our voices against oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia. If Pretoria remains silent on Saudi atrocities in Yemen and continues its “business as usual” approach with Riyadh, then we would have sold our foreign policy to the highest bidder. We would also be turning our back on our proud history, which is based on human rights and solidarity with the oppressed.
Zeenat Adam is a former diplomat and an independent international relations strategist. Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network