The deadly normality of the arms trade

Yemenis sue the German export authority

Yemen – Arms exports – Germany

Eurofighters, Tornadoes and MK 80 series bombs are just some of the weapons produced in Europe whose use in the war in Yemen has been verified. It is also well documented that the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has not spared private dwellings, schools, markets or hospitals in its attacks in Yemen. Despite these obvious war crimes and the overwhelming evidence of violations of international humanitarian law, European authorities authorized these arms exports. In many cases, such as with the fighter jets deployed by Saudi Arabia, important weapons components also were produced and still are produced in Germany. 


In October 2021, three Yemeni nationals contested licenses for the export of military equipment, with final destinations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the German authority responsible for export licenses (BAFA). This explicitly concerned licenses that had already been granted at the time but had not yet expired. With the support of ECCHR and the Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana for Human Rights, the Sana'a-based applicants also filed to participate in related licensing procedures that had not yet been finalized. These procedures concerned military equipment intended for air warfare, including spare parts for airplanes, bomb targeting systems, as well as bombs and missiles to be deployed from airplanes. The applicants’ aim was to stop the further supply of such military equipment from Germany – as the air war in particular has been associated with numerous, well-documented violations of international humanitarian law and has endangered the constitutionally protected right to life and physical inviolability of the three applicants.  

After delaying the applicants’ request for over two years on the grounds of ministerial coordination processes, the authority rejected the applications as inadmissible at the end of April 2024. The affected parties filed an appeal against this decision with the Frankfurt Administrative Court at the end of May 2024. 

The case also highlights the fundamental question concerning the human rights of civilians in military conflicts. Although their protection is firmly established in international humanitarian law, in practice it has been demonstrated time and again that it is extremely difficult for civilian victims of military conflicts to hold the perpetrators of such human rights violations to account. In this context, authorities such as BAFA also play an important role: licensing procedures for weapons and other military equipment should not only take into account economic and security considerations, but also Germany's obligations under international law, in particular, the human rights of civilians at risk. 

To effectively guarantee this, licensing decisions must be subject to judicial review. At the very least, affected civilians must be able to obtain effective legal protection against export licenses for military equipment whose unlawful use under international law threatens their right to life and physical inviolability. One of the biggest obstacles to date has been the extensive lack of transparency in arms export and licensing practices. 


Since 2015, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in attacks by the warring parties in Yemen or have died of hunger and disease as a result of the war. All parties to the conflict are responsible for the human rights violations in Yemen. One central cause of civilian casualties are the airstrikes by the military alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which intervened in Yemen in March 2015. Based on information from the Yemen Data Project, out of a total of more than 25,000 recorded coalition airstrikes, over 7,000 identifiable non-military targets were hit. Schools, hospitals and civilian dwellings have been destroyed, and thousands of people have been killed, injured or displaced. Although the airstrikes have finally ceased since the ceasefire in spring 2022, Yemenis continue to suffer the enduring consequences of this war, which has gone on for years. More than 21 million Yemenis – over two thirds of the population – are still dependent on humanitarian aid for their minimum supply of water and food. Conflict-related damage and targeted attacks by the warring parties have resulted in a breakdown in civilian infrastructure, including education and healthcare, which is now in a barely functional state. The latest military escalation in Yemen – following the US and UK airstrikes on Houthi targets in early 2024 – risks worsening the already serious situation for the civilian population. As there is still no formal peace treaty between the parties to the conflict, the conflict threatens to flare up again at any instant – with devastating consequences for the civilian population. 

European-based arms manufacturers, along with European states, have played and continue to play a central role in the Yemen conflict. In April 2018, ECCHR and its partners filed a criminal complaint with the Public Prosecutor's Office in Rome concerning Italian arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia. This was followed by a communication, jointly submitted by Mwatana for Human Rights (Yemen), Amnesty International (France), the Campaign Against Arms Trade (UK), Centre Delàs (Spain) and Rete Disarmo (Italy), to the International Criminal Court in The Hague in December 2019, requesting an investigation into several European arms manufacturers, such as Leonardo and Rheinmetall, as well as the authorities that officially approved their shipments. In June 2022, ECCHR, together with Mwatana for Human Rights (Yemen) and Sherpa (France), also filed a criminal complaint with the Paris Court regarding French arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 


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Public international law

Public international law is the system of laws governing relations between states and other subjects of international law.

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Arms exports

Exporting arms to repressive regimes; selling arms components to conflict parties; illegal trading in firearms – European weapons companies repeatedly overstep the law. Lax regulations and insufficient export controls add further fuel to a lethal trade in European weapons.

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