Belgium Suspends Arms Exports To Saudi Arabia As Yemen Crisis Worsens

On August 7th, human rights groups across the world celebrated as Belgium confirmed that it will halt weapons exportations to Saudi Arabia’s National Guard (SANG). This announcement came following an injunction made by Belgium’s top legal authority, the Council of State, who formally suspended arms export licenses for shipments to SANG. According to the Council, the contracts for these licenses do not meet the standard for “human rights in the end-user country and its respect for international law.” However, the Council chose not to block shipments to all units of the Saudi military, allowing Belgium’s contract with the Saudi Royal Guard to remain intact. 

The move to suspend contracts to SANG is hardly a surprise, considering Belgium has for the last several months begun to gradually restrict weapons exportations to Saudi Arabia. In February, the local government of the southern Belgian region Wallonia issued a weapons sales ban on the Saudi Air Force in response to mounting concerns relating to Riyadh’s role in the Yemeni Civil War. This decision, however, did not come without considerable backlash, including a strong objection from Wallonia’s Minister-President Elio Di Rupo, a tenacious supporter of Saudi weapons exportations. Di Rupo argues that “these weapons are destined strictly for the protection of members of the royal family and notable religious sites,” and that “they are not intended to be used in Yemen.” However, Amnesty International’s Philippe Hensmans blasted these comments, claiming that “contrary to what Mr. Di Rupo claims, the national guard, armed by the Walloon region, certainly is active in Yemeni territory, using Walloon military equipment.”

Belgium is not alone in considering the idea of placing limitations on Saudi arms productions. For years, initiatives around the world have called on countries, whose governments provide Saudi Arabia with excess military contributions, to consider withdrawing their support. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are leaders in this global movement, who have cited prolific human suffering, specifically the Yemen crisis, as reason to disband any further weapons sales to the Saudi regime. These NGOs are frequent criticizers of Saudi Arabia’s airstrike campaign in Yemen, an effort embedded in the goal of disbanding the Houthi rebels and restoring Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power. Saudi Arabia, who have launched more than 20,000 airstrikes according to the Yemen Data Project, are accused of intentionally targeted civilians at non-military sites. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost since the conflict first began, and horrific living conditions have brought on a nationwide famine that has made up to 70% of the population food insecure. The United Nations now labels Yemen as the country facing the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis. 

Belgium’s restriction of arms sales to Saudi Arabia is an important step in de-escalating the violence and human suffering which has plagued Yemen since 2014. However, these actions alone are not enough, as Saudi Arabia is far less dependent on Belgian arms compared to the luxurious array of riches provided by wealthier countries like the United States. Donald Trump’s assumption of the Presidency has revamped military ties between Washington and Riyadh, as a $110 billion arms agreement was signed between the two countries in March 2017. Through a controversial emergency declaration, Trump paved the way for an additional $8 billion deal in 2019, despite bipartisan congressional efforts that condemned U.S. weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. Another powerful contributor is the United Kingdom, who according to BBC have licensed over £4.7 billion in arms sales to the Saudis since the start of the Yemen conflict. A moratorium temporarily halted exports after a British court ruled that Boris Johnson had “made no concluded assessment of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international human law.” However, after International Trade Secretary Liz Truss announced in July 2020 that the suspension had been lifted, Britain has once again resumed supplying the Saudi government with weapons.

In the interest of preserving human rights and putting an end to Saudi Arabia’s relentless airstrike campaign in Yemen, the United States and United Kingdom must terminate their arms deals with Riyadh. An absence of American and British support would starve Saudi Arabia’s military operations against Yemeni civilians, and bring about an opportunity to restore peace to a country which has faced nothing but violence and chaos for the last six years. Countries like Belgium are beginning to courageously stand up to Riyadh and withdraw contributions in light of the Saudi government’s complete disregard for human rights and international law. However, Belgium’s actions will have minimal contribution without similar interventions made by Washington and London.

Peter Koenigsbauer