Human rights organisation Amnesty International has issued an urgent plea to western governments to stop trading arms with the coalition of Arab states embroiled in the Yemen conflict, which has been branded the "world's worst humanitarian crisis" by the United Nations.
The conflict — which is now entering its fourth year — is impacting every area of life for civilians, and has stripped people of their right to food, clean water, education, healthcare, shelter, and more.
Almost half of the population of Yemen is facing starvation, and up to 85,000 children are already believed to have starved to death. Malnourishment is also making children more vulnerable to the spread of cholera, which if untreated can kill a child within hours. In October, roughly 10,000 suspected cases were being reported every week, making the cholera outbreak in Yemen the worst in the world.
Take Action: Help Kids Facing Conflict and Crisis Stay in School
Millions of people have been displaced from their homes, and some 2 million children are believed to be out of school because of the conflict. Meanwhile, residential areas, hospitals, and markets have become targets for airstrikes, with Amnesty accusing the Saudi-led coalition of “violating international humanitarian law.”
The Houthi rebel forces in Yemen “are also committing violations” by launching attacks on civilian towns in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty.
Governments — including the US, UK, France, and China — have already and often been criticised for selling arms to coalition forces, despite reports that the weapons are being used to injure, maim, and even kill civilians in Yemen.
But now “a new threat is emerging,” according to the human rights organisation, which has sparked a renewed plea to the international community to stop selling weapons to the parties involved in the conflict.
An investigation, published on Wednesday, alleges that the weapons being sold to the United Arab Emirates are ending up in the hands of “out-of-control” militias with “atrocious” human rights records that include accusations of war crimes.
The investigation analysed open-source evidence — including footage and photos collected by news organisations — from the battle for the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah.
And the report, entitledWhen Arms Go Astray,claims that the UAE is arming militia groups in Yemen — reporting that militias have been seen in the footage with weapons sold by countries like the US, UK, and Australia.
The specific militia groups named in the report — which Amnesty claims are trained and funded by the UAE, but aren’t accountable to any government — include “Shabwani Elite”, “Security Belt”, and “The Giants Brigades,” it says.
“Emirati forces receive billions of dollars’ worth of arms from western states and others, only to siphon them off to militias in Yemen that answer to no-one and are known to be committing war crimes,” said Patrick Wilcken, Amnesty International’s arms control and human rights researcher.
“The proliferation of these fighting forces is a recipe for disaster for Yemeni civilians who have already been killed in their thousands, while millions more are on the brink of famine as a direct result of the war,” he said.
He added: “Yemen is quickly becoming a safe haven for UAE-backed militias that are largely unaccountable.”
Since the conflict began in 2015, some $3.5 billion worth of arms have reportedly been supplied to the UAE — which has been leading the ground offensive in Yemen, according to Amnesty.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which has been leading the coalition on airstrikes, has reportedly become the world’s largest importer of weapons in the past three years — and the US and the UK are the kingdom’s top suppliers.
The UK alone has also licensed nearly £600 million worth of arms to the UAE, according to Amnesty.
“It’s extremely alarming that arms of the type licensed for export to the UAE by the UK are being diverted by the Emiratis to out-of-control militias operating in southern Yemen,” said Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s arms expert.
“According to its own arms export rules, the UK should long ago have halted the sale of all weapons to all parties to the conflict in Yemen because of the clear risk they would fuel further human rights abuse,” he added.
But the UK isn’t alone. Other countries named as having recently supplied arms to the UAE include: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the UK, and the US.
A top US general reportedly said on Tuesday that investigations would be held into whether weapons were reaching unintended recipients, according to the BBC.
A senior UAE official also reportedly told CNN that they denied "in no uncertain terms that we are in violation of end-user agreements in any manner." It came after CNN published a report alleging that US-shipped weapons had reached fighters linked to al-Qaeda and Iran.
According to Amnesty, of the over 20 countries known to be supplying arms to the UAE, just four — Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands — have recently suspended arms trading to the UAE.
"Only a handful of countries have done the right thing and stopped the conveyor belt of arms to Yemen's devastating conflict," Wilcken reportedly added. "Others must follow in their footsteps or they will share responsibility for the devastating toll these billions of dollars' worth of arms transfers are wreaking."
Meanwhile, both sides in the conflict are also accused in the report of obstructing “desperately needed humanitarian assistance for civilians in need.”
While a ceasefire was put in place in the “critical port” of Hodeidah — through which up to 80% of the country’s humanitarian and commercial supplies flow — in December, the United Nations had to call on the warring parties to immediately withdraw troops from the city at the end of January.