Saturday 25th March will mark the second anniversary of the beginning of the armed conflict in Yemen between the government of President Hadi, supported by an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and the Huthi armed group and its allied forces. All parties to the continuing armed conflict have committed war crimes and other serious violations of international law with impunity.

Ever since, the situation has resulted in a humanitarian crisis for the Yemeni population and the country is on the brink of famine. The Saudi-led coalition has bombed schools, hospitals, markets and mosques and has acknowledged using internationally banned US and UK cluster munitions. These weapons are of an indiscriminate and present a continuing risk for the civilian population because of their frequent failure to detonate on initial impact. The Saudi coalition has imposed a naval blockade preventing access to the humanitarian assistance needed by 21 million people to cover their basic needs. These are all serious violations of international humanitarian law. According to the UN, by the end of 2016, the conflict in Yemen had killed over 7,000 people, half of them, civilians, and injured over 40,000.

Spain has also played a role in this war. Just like any other conflict, this one requires arms to fuel it and a naval blockade requires ships to impose and maintain it. In the last decade, Spain has sold arms to Saudi Arabia worth almost 1,400 million Euros, mainly airplanes, munitions, mortar shells, bombs, torpedoes, rockets and missiles since the outbreak of the conflict. In January 2017, King Felipe VI visited Riyadh to, inter alia, advocate for a contract for the sale of five type Avante 2200 corvettes for the Saudi navy that the Spanish company Navantia would build.

This is obviously an unethical deal because it is underpinned by such heinous acts as war crimes. Yet, the key to this case is that it is illegal. The Spanish government CANNOT sell arms to Saudi Arabia because the Saudi coalition is committing atrocities in Yemen.

This is why, when authorising arms exports to Saudi Arabia, Spain is breaching its Law on foreign trade of defence materials and dual-use goods, whose enactment was driven by Greenpeace and other NGOs and which is not yet a decade old, and the Arms Trade Treaty it ratified in 2014, which prohibits the sale of arms to commit international crimes.  

There are those who, with a more or less friendly discourse, justify this illegal atrocity on the grounds that “others countries sell arms to the Saudis”. If Sweden, the Netherlands or the Belgian region of Flanders no longer sell arms to the Saudis, Spain can obviously stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia and echo the 2016 demand of the European Parliament that, in the light of the humanitarian situation in Yemen, urged Member States not to allow arms exports that may provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions in the country. Otherwise, Spain may face a similar situation to that of the UK, where the High Court is reviewing UK arms transfers to Saudi Arabia during the war in Yemen.

The Spanish government can choose to respect international law or abet the atrocities being committed in Yemen. That also contributes to the image that Spain wants to project abroad. Eventually, it will always be held to account.

Sara del Río is Political advisor at Greenpeace Spain and Alberto Estévez an expert on arms control for the “Armas Bajo Control” Campaign (coalition of spanish NGOs which Greenpeace Spain is part of)