As Yemen War Continues, French Critics Target Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

By Fayçal Benhassain | October 9, 2019 | 7:31pm EDT
The remains of a bombed funeral hall in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa after a reported Saudi-led coalition air strike this week. (Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)

Paris ( – France’s policy of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia came under the spotlight again in the Senate here this week, when two lawmakers hosted a presentation focusing on the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Senator Nathalie Goulet, a centrist, and Senator Michel Amiel, a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, visited Yemen recently, and described the military and humanitarian situations there as catastrophic.

They said their presentation aims to establish a legal framework that will identify those responsible for abuses in Yemen since the latest conflict erupted.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a military coalition in support of Yemen’s internationally-recognized government in its fight against Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels. The U.N. has named the humanitarian crisis in Yemen the world’s worst, with more than 60,000 people killed.

Speaking at the Senate presentation, Yemen’s ambassador to France, Reyad Yassin Abdulla, acknowledged that the situation there was complicated, but said that “we cannot lose sight of” the fact that ordinary people are the ones suffering most.

Non-governmental organizations are criticizing Macron for selling arms to Saudi Arabia and its ally in the coalition, the United Arab Emirates.

Human Rights Watch this week recalled Macron’s comment during a recent press conference about the importance of defending fundamental rights and freedoms “at a time when they are being attacked by authoritarian governments.”

Macron added that those regimes’ violations were no longer being punished, or even strongly criticized.

Challenging the president about those words, HRW said, “It seems incomprehensible for France not to sign on with other countries in condemning Saudi Arabia’s continued human rights abuses.”

It was referring to recent U.N. Human Rights Council condemnation of abuses in the conflict.

While France is not a member of the HRC, it did not join a group of nations, both HRC members and non-members, which sponsored the resolution. It was adopted by the council by a 22-12 vote (with 11 abstentions) on September 26.

In a speech last May, Macron conceded that France for several years has been selling arms to the Saudis and Emiratis, but said the weaponry was being used within those countries’ territories or on their borders, not in the conflict in Yemen.

The same month, human rights activists protested the loading on weapons onto a Saudi ship in the port of Le Havre in western France.

At the time, Defense Minister Florence Parly confirmed in a television interview that the weapons were bound for Saudi Arabia, but said there was no evidence that they would be used against civilians.

Opposition lawmakers were not satisfied.

“How do you intend to prove that French-made weapons are not being used for offensive purposes in Yemen, in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty?” Jean-Paul Lecoq, a communist deputy, asked in parliament. “The guns were not made to decorate the sheikh’s palace,” he added, demanding greater government transparency.

Disclose, an independent investigative media outlet, last April published confidential defense documents revealing the extensive use of French weapons in the war in Yemen.

Human rights groups said there was a high risk of their use in unlawful attacks against civilians in Yemen, and demanded that France stop all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies.

France has had an improving business relationship with Saudi Arabia since former President François Holland took office in 2012.

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