Macron defends arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE amid Yemen war criticism

Macron defends arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE amid Yemen war criticism
France's president claimed the arms export was going to help 'allies in the fight against terrorism' in the face of mounting casualties in Yemen and pressure from rights groups.
3 min read
09 May, 2019
Macron has maintained the need for close relationships with Saudi Arabia and UAE [Getty]
French President Emmanuel Macron stood by his country's arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on Thursday as campaigners brought to light a new shipment to leave from the northern port of Le Havre bound for the two Gulf countries.

Human rights groups have regularly denounced France for continuing to supply the Gulf states despite allegations of war crimes and civilian deaths during their military operations in neighbouring Yemen.

"Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are allies of France and allies in the fight against terrorism. We accept responsibility for that," Macron told reporters when asked about the arms sales.

Speaking as he arrived for a meeting of EU leaders in Romania, Macron said that arms exports were overseen by a government committee that had demanded guarantees that the weapons would not be used against civilians.

"We received that," he added.

Macron has faced mounting pressure from critics in France over the deliveries, particularly after a recent leaked intelligence report showed that French weapons were being widely used in the Yemen conflict.

Leftwing lawmakers stormed out of parliament on Tuesday in protest after Genevieve Darrieussecq, secretary of state for the armed forces, said there was "no proof these weapons are being used against civilian populations".

Contrary to Macron's claims, a classified military note leaked last month revealed that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have deployed French weaponry - including artillery, tanks and ships - in their war against Houthi rebels.

The conflict in Yemen has lasted more than four years and killed tens of thousands of people, many of them civilians, relief agencies say. 

The UN confirmed last week that the conflict in Yemen is now the most destructive conflict since the Cold War, citing the war's severely negative impact on development goals such as alleviating extreme poverty, extending life expectancy and increasing educational attainment.

The fighting in Yemen has also triggered what the United Nations describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with 3.3 million people still displaced and 24.1 million - more than two-thirds of the population - in need of aid.

For the past week, NGOs such as the Campaign Against Arms Trade and Human Rights Watch have tracked the movements of a Saudi cargo ship that has travelled between Belgium, Britain and France.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly confirmed Wednesday that French weapons would be loaded onto the ship, the Bahri Yanbu, when it docks at the French port of Le Havre.

It was anchored around 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the port on the Channel coast on Thursday afternoon, tracking website MarineTraffic showed.

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The French campaign group Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT) filed a suit in a Paris court on Thursday seeking to prevent the ship from loading its cargo.

The group is seeking to use a 2014 international treaty regulating the arms trade which stipulates that signatory countries should not export weapons if they know they might be used to commit war crimes.

"It is entirely true that for several years - at its height, five or six years ago in contracts that were signed at that time - France has sold weapons to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia," Macron added on Thursday.

"The majority of these weapons that were sold have been used inside their territories or at the border," he added. "But I want to be clear: we need to be with our allies in these difficult times and the war against terrorism is a priority for us."

Close neighbour Germany has by contrast suspended sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, UAE and the rest of the countries involved in the conflict in Yemen. 

Germany and France are among the world's top arms exporters, a group led by the US that also includes Russia, China and the UK.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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