European responsibility for war crimes in Yemen

Are RWM Italia and Italian arms export authority complicit in deadly Saudi-coalition airstrike?

Yemen – Arms exports – RWM Italia

On 8 October 2016, an airstrike allegedly by the Saudi-led military coalition struck the village of Deir Al-Ḩajārī in northwest Yemen. The attack killed a family of six, including the pregnant mother and four children.

At the site of the airstrike bomb remnants were found, and a suspension lug manufactured by RWM Italia SpA, a subsidiary of the German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall AG. In April 2018, ECCHR and its partners from Italy and Yemen called for an investigation into the criminal liability of the Italian authorities and RWM’s directors for arms exports. The preliminary investigations judge confirmed in February 2021 that the Rome Public Prosecutor’s Office must continue the case. However, those responsible applied again to dismiss the case – and ECCHR filed an appeal against that step in March 2022.

A year later the Judge for Preliminary Investigations in Rome dismissed the case despite prove of violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. The judge did not consider the suspects prosecutable, as it could not be proven that the company profited from the abuse of power. According to the judge, the public officials had complied with the formal procedures of the arms export authorization process. The  decision not only denies those affected by the air strike access to justice and a fair trial, but also stands in stark contrast to the evidence gathered over years of investigation.

For the survivors, ECCHR and the partner organizations, it is clear: the Italian judiciary violated its obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights with a misguided investigation and subsequent dismissal of the complaint. Therefore two relatives of victims and one survivor have filed a complaint against Italy with the European Court of Human Rights in July 2023.


The incident of Deir Al-Ḩajārī is well documented, as a field monitor of Mwatana for Human Rights, a Yemeni partner organization of ECCHR attended the scene the day after.

At the site of the airstrike, bomb remnants were found, which indicate that the type of bomb used was a guided bomb of the MK80-family. Also in the rubble a suspension lug, which is needed to attach the bomb to the plane, was found. Its serial marks clearly indicate that it was manufactured by RWM Italia SpA, an Italian subsidiary of German Rheinmetall AG.

The dismissal of the case reduces major decisions about arms sales to mere bureaucratic formalities, regardless of the fact that arms trade directly impacts people's lives. It thus ignores both the violation of national and international norms concerning the arms trade, as well as the responsibilities of the company to ensure that its business practices are in compliance with international norms. Beyond that, this ruling ignores the alleged complicity of the suspects in the killing of six people during the airstrike on the village of Deir Al-Ḩajārī in 2016.


ECCHR, Mwatana, and Rete Italiana Pace e Disarmo in cooperation with Osservatorio Permanente sulle Armi Leggere e le Politiche di Sicurezza e Difesa (OPAL), filed the criminal complaint against managers of RWM Italia and senior officials of Italy’s National Authority for the Export of Armament (UAMA). The complaint alleges the criminal liability of the RWM Italia managers and UAMA officials for the export of at least a part of the deadly weapon used in the strike, to Saudi Arabia or another member state of the Saudi-led military coalition.

Despite major warnings that the coalition warfare in Yemen causes significant loss of civilian life and breaches of international humanitarian law, exports of bombs and other weapons to coalition member states had not stopped and are still taking place. In Italy, the competent Italian Authority for the Export of Armament authorizes these exports of armaments manufactured in Italy.



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War crimes

War crimes are serious violations of international humanitarian law provisions applicable in international and non-international armed conflict. War crimes are part of the core crimes of international criminal law and are subject to universal jurisdiction. War crimes include e.g. intentional attacks on the civilian population or civilian objects such as hospitals and the use of chemical weapons.

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In a report from April 2018, the UN describes the war in Yemen as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” one that has left over ten million people dependent on humanitarian aid to survive. Since 2015, thousands of civilians have been killed in the armed conflict; many more have died from famine and disease.

While human rights violations are committed by all conflict parties in Yemen, one of the main causes of civilian casualties are airstrikes by the Saudi-led military coalition, which launched its military intervention in Yemen in March 2015. Along with Saudi Arabia, the coalition also includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait and Sudan. Numerous reports by the UN and NGOs in Yemen and abroad document repeated and deadly attacks on civilian targets like hospitals, markets, schools and residential buildings.

Despite all of the reports, warnings and evidence that the airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition breach international humanitarian law, European companies are among those selling arms to the coalition states – with authorization from their respective European government authorities.

Furthermore, since 2002, the US has been using targeted drone attacks in the name of “counter-terrorism” to kill people in Yemen suspected of being involved in terrorism. These strikes are not as “surgical” as the US claims, and often result in the deaths of civilians. So far, nobody has been able to legally put an end to the US drone strikes or the killings of the Yemeni civilian population.

This is why ECCHR and its partner organizations from Yemen and in Europe are using the law to ensure that companies (complaint against Italian arms producer RWM Italia, a subsidiary of German firm Rheinmetall AG), and state authorities (administrative complaint against the German government for the involvement of US air base Ramstein) are held accountable for their role in aiding and abetting to civilian deaths in Yemen.


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