6 December 2018
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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section
The conflict in Yemen has been labelled the ‘worst humanitarian
crisis in the world’ by the EU and characterised by the UN as ‘entirely
It was reported in late October 2018 that the Saudi-led coalition
was deploying an additional 10,000 troops as part of a planned new offensive
against the port city of Hodeida, which is the principal humanitarian lifeline
allowing food and medical aid to reach almost two-thirds of the Yemeni
population located in Houthi-controlled territory.
The UN has warned that Yemen, already one of the poorest
countries in the Arab world prior to the conflict, is now on the brink of widespread
famine, which could lead to further massive loss of life. Yemen is also suffering
from one of the largest cholera outbreaks in recorded history, with over one
million suspected cases.
It has been estimated that since 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has
conducted 18,000 airstrikes, one third of which have hit non-military targets.
On 11 November 2018, the area around Hodeida’s main hospital came under
sustained air attack.
The UN High Commissioner of Human Rights has suggested that war
crimes may have been committed by both sides to the conflict, noting reports of
sexual violence, torture and child soldier recruitment.
The Australian Government has urged the parties to the conflict
to ‘respect international humanitarian law [and] minimise civilian hardship’
and the Opposition has urged the Government to ‘support United
Nations’ efforts to find a political solution to the conflict’.
Australia made a number of military shipments to Saudi Arabia in
2016–17 and plans to increase arms sales to the UAE. The Australian Greens and
NGOs have called on the Government to suspend such arms sales, as the German
Government has done.
Australia’s seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council provides
an avenue for drawing attention to the conflict and promoting a multilateral
approach to de-escalating the conflict and averting an even more widespread
humanitarian disaster in Yemen.
Figure 1: political map of Yemen
Introduction to the crisis
Figure 2: northern and
southern Yemen prior to unification
Figure 3: map of the Yemen conflict
Potential war crimes
The Western connection
The involvement of foreign nationals
All hyperlinks in this paper were valid as at October 2018.
political map of Yemen
Source: ‘Political map of Yemen’, Nations Online Project.
to the crisis
Labelled the ‘worst humanitarian crisis in
the world’ by the EU and characterised by the UN as ‘entirely man-made’, the
ongoing crisis in Yemen continues to drag on unabated.
Despite a notional lull in fighting to allow for UN-brokered negotiations since
July, statistics released by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project
(ACLED) indicate that August has been the most deadly month of the conflict in
2018 with nearly 500 people killed in one nine-day period alone.
Oxfam, furthermore, has reported that 575 civilians, including 136 children,
were killed in just the key Red Sea port of Hodeida between 1 August and 15
Following the stalling of negotiations between the internationally-recognised
Yemeni Government and Houthi de facto authorities after the failure to secure
safe passage for the Houthi delegation to/from Geneva, UAE ground forces renewed
their assault on Hodeida with Saudi air support on 7 September.
In late October 2018, it was reported that the Saudi-led coalition was
deploying an additional 10,000 troops as part of a planned new offensive
against the city.
The port has been held by Houthi forces since 2014; it is
the principal humanitarian lifeline allowing food and medical aid to reach
almost two-thirds of the Yemeni population located in Houthi-controlled
Yemen was already highly dependent on imports even before the war, accounting
for 90 per cent of its food, fuel and medical supplies, with about 70 per cent of
all imports coming through Hodeida.
Fighting also threatens to cut the main road inland to the capital, Sana’a, and
other Houthi-controlled areas. In August 2016, for example, the Saudi-led
coalition bombed and destroyed the main bridge between Hodeida and Sana’a. An
estimated 90 per cent of food supplies provided by the UN’s World Food
Programme had previously transited the destroyed bridge.
The UN has warned that Yemen, already one of the poorest
countries in the Arab world prior to the conflict, is on the brink of widespread
famine, which could lead to further massive loss of life.
A spokesperson for Save the Children, Mark Kaye, explains, ‘This crisis is
happening because food and supplies can’t get into the country. Yemen was
completely dependent on imports of food medicine and fuel prior to this crisis’.
Similarly, CARE International’s Yemen director warned in September 2018 that
Yemen may run out of food within two to three months.
According to a 2017 report in the medical journal, The Lancet, the war
‘has exacerbated the country’s pre-existing challenges including poverty, poor
health, and shortage of basic necessities such as water, fuel, and medications’
resulting in severe malnutrition, with about half of Yemen’s children affected
by chronic malnutrition.
It has been alleged, moreover, that the Saudi-led coalition
has been deliberately targeting, degrading and destroying Yemen’s food
A report by Professor Martha Mundy for Tuft University’s World Peace Foundation
If one places the damage to the
resources of food producers (farmers, herders, and fishers) alongside the
targeting of food processing, storage and transport in urban areas and the
wider economic war, there is strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed
to destroy food production and distribution in the areas under the control of
San‘a’ [Houthi-led authorities] ... from the autumn of 2016, economic war has
compounded physical destruction to create a mass failure in basic livelihoods.
Yemen’s health care system is on the verge of collapse. More
than 55 per cent of health facilities are only partially functioning or have
been destroyed and ‘The underground water in all Yemeni cities is contaminated
with sewage and treatment plants are not functioning because of lack of fuel
Indicatively, Yemen is suffering from one of the largest cholera outbreaks in
recorded history with over one million suspected cases.
According to the International Crisis Group, ‘in excess of eighteen million
people are food-insecure, and eight million are on the verge of starvation’.
The conflict has been variously portrayed as a civil war, a
proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a supposedly ancient schism
between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims (the latter notionally represented by Zaydi
The diversity and sheer number of actors involved in the conflict, however,
demonstrates that these characterisations are far too simplistic and that the
conflict defies neat categorisation.
Accordingly, a UN panel of experts reporting to the Security Council earlier
this year expressed the view:
Yemen, as a state, has all but ceased to exist ... Instead of a
single State there are warring statelets, and no one side has either the
political support or the military strength to reunite the country or achieve
victory on the battlefield.
Nonetheless, conflict between the north and the south of
Yemen is nothing new. Yemen is also no stranger to outside intervention, having
been the site of conflict between revolutionary Arab republican states, led by
Egypt, and conservative monarchies led by Saudi Arabia during the 1960s.
Prior to the 1962 revolution, northern Yemen had been ruled by a Houthi imamate
for several hundred years, while southern Yemen was a British protectorate
centred on the port of Aden from 1839 to 1967.
Figure 2 below indicates how Yemen was divided before it became a unified
republic in 1990.
Figure 2: northern and southern Yemen prior to unification
the Yemen conflict—historical division (1962)’, European Council on Foreign Relations.
The central government, moreover, has never held a monopoly
on armed coercive power, which forms a key theoretical basis of the Weberian
state’s sovereign legitimacy. Yemen has long been beset by separatist movements
in both the north and the south of the country, as well as ongoing violent
Instead, as Thomas Juneau explains:
[Former President Ali Abdullah]
Saleh [who led Yemen through the process of unification] managed the country’s
affairs for 34 years by maintaining a precarious balance among a range of
competing forces, including the military and the security apparatus, tribes,
political parties and factions, clerics and businesspeople. By buying loyalty
through patronage and ruling through a combination of co-optation, inclusion
and coercion, Saleh built an ‘administrative feudal system’ that evolved into a
mix of ‘kleptocracy and plutocracy’.
The roots of the current conflict, however, stem from a Houthi
insurrection in 2004, which has periodically flared up since, comprising six
rounds of conflict between 2004 and 2010.
The Houthi movement (now formally known as Ansar Allah or ‘Supporters/Partisans
of God’), was founded by Hosein Badreddin al-Houthi, an influential cleric in
northern Yemen and a former member of parliament in the 1990s; it is affiliated
with the Zaydi stream of Shi’a Islam and remains firmly centred on the Houthi
From 2004, the Houthis fought against the Yemeni Government with the aim of
ending economic underdevelopment, political marginalisation and discrimination.
Zaydis constitute about 35 per cent of the Yemeni population, mostly located in
the north west of the country.
According to Juneau, ‘At this point the Houthis wanted a greater say in
national affairs, greater recognition of Zaydi cultural and religious rights,
and an end to proselytizing by Saudi-backed Wahhabi institutes in Sa’ada
province, their northern stronghold’.
Fearing instability, unrest and a potential security threat along its long and
porous southern border, Saudi Arabia first intervened in Yemen in 2009 on
behalf of the Saleh Government, employing artillery and air power against the
Houthis and imposing a blockade on Yemen’s north west coast to impede the transfer
The present conflagration started after the 2011 Arab
uprisings, which led to the deposal of long-time president, Ali Abdullah Saleh,
amid widespread popular protests against corruption, economic stagnation and
authoritarianism. Saleh was replaced by the current internationally-recognised
president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in 2012.
The Houthis then participated in the national dialogue that followed, aimed at
drafting a new constitution for a democratic and federalised Yemen, but
remained suspicious of the Sana’a-based elites’ sincerity regarding the
implementation of genuine reforms. In the event, the transition process ‘did
not fundamentally reform governance but merely perpetuated the pre-2011 system:
while redistributing positions, it failed to dismantle longstanding patronage
structures and to integrate previously marginalized actors’.
Following the collapse of national power-sharing talks in
2014, Houthi forces, then allied to forces still loyal to Saleh—their former
foe being keen to reverse the effects of the 2011 protests that removed him
from power—seized control of most of Yemen, including the capital Sana’a (Saleh
was later killed by the Houthis in December 2017 after attempting to defect to
the Saudi-led coalition).
Hadi resigned from office on 22 January 2015 before escaping from house arrest,
fleeing to Yemen’s second city Aden on 21 February, which he designated the
temporary capital, and rescinding his resignation.
As Houthi forces converged on Aden, Hadi then fled to Saudi Arabia and a
Saudi-led coalition began bombarding Yemen in support of his government in
Since then, it is estimated that the Saudi-led coalition has
conducted 18,000 airstrikes, one third of which have hit non-military targets.
Recent high-profile bombings include a strike on a school bus which killed at
least 51 people, including 40 children, and the bombing of Hodeida’s main
public hospital, killing dozens.
In 2017, the UN estimated that over 10,000 civilians had already been killed and
40,000 injured during the current conflict.
ACLED, however, estimates that around 56,000 civilians and combatants were
killed between January 2016 and October 2018, with an increase of more than 2,000
per month, and an expected 70,000 to 80,000 dead once research backdating
casualties to the start of the war in March 2015 is completed.
Many more have died from hunger and preventable diseases. By
November 2018, Save the Children estimated that extreme hunger and disease was
killing an average of 100 children per day.
Analysing UN data, Save the Children has estimated that some 85,000 children
under the age of five may have died from severe acute malnutrition between
April 2015 and October 2018.
While the coalition has managed to secure much of the sparsely populated south
and east of the country, the Houthis remain firmly in control of the capital
and the majority of the population in the north.
Citing the Houthis’ use of long-range missiles and drones as
evidence, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have frequently accused the Houthis of being
Iranian proxies, alleging that the Islamic Republic has provided massive
amounts of material support to the Houthis. This is a charge Iran has vehemently
denied and which has been met by scepticism elsewhere.
Given the distances involved and the air, land and sea blockades of Yemen, the
ability of Iran to transfer large amounts of weaponry appears to have been
Nonetheless, it has been speculated that weapons may have been transferred on
small fishing boats via Somalia.
Moreover, the UAE has used the claim that Iranian weapons are being smuggled
through Hodeida to justify its attack on the key port described earlier.
However, as journalist Patrick Cockburn observes, ‘a UN
panel of experts concluded earlier in the year  that no weapons were
coming through the port from Iran because ships are randomly inspected and must
be authorised by the UN’.
Similarly, a UN report released in June 2018 was unable to determine if
missiles fired by the Houthis at Saudi Arabia were provided by Iran despite
containing components manufactured in Iran; nor was it able to say whether
these were acquired after the imposition of UN restrictions on Iran’s transfer
of ballistic missile technology under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action curtailing
Iran’s nuclear program, which came into force on 16 January 2016.
Ironically, given his subsequent alliance with the Houthis against
the Hadi Government and the Saudi-led coalition prior to his demise in December
2017, it was Saleh who first accused the Houthis (without ever providing definitive
proof) of being Iranian proxies after fighting erupted in 2004, presumably with
the intention of attracting Saudi and US support.
Iran and the Houthis do not have a long-standing relationship, with Iranian
interest only piqued following Saudi military actions in 2009. Indeed, an April
2015 report to the UN Security Council’s Iran Sanctions Committee found that
Iran began transferring small amounts of weaponry to the Houthis in 2009.
This appears to have increased in 2011 and 2014, but still remained modest.
Conversely, a lack of international support in the fight
against the vast array of enemies aligned against them may have led Houthis to
turn to Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah for support and to start emphasising
Shi’a practices and symbols, thereby fuelling a perception of a wider sectarian
conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.
However, as Juneau notes:
Whatever the precise amount of support Iran has given the
Houthis, it represents a fraction of what Saudi Arabia has provided, over the
years, to its preferred factions whether in the government, the armed forces,
the bureaucracy, the security services or non-state entities such as Wahhabi institutions
and tribal militias.
Since 2012, Saudi Arabia has invested at least $4 billion to
prop up the Yemeni economy after the 2011 uprisings. Remittances from Yemeni
workers in Saudi Arabia have also contributed around another $4 billion per year
to the Yemeni economy.
In short, the Houthis threaten the political structures in which Saudi Arabia
has so much invested. Juneau concludes thus:
Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s soft under-belly, and instability on
this south flank represents an important threat to Saudi security. This is far
from the case for Iran. In sum, what happens in Yemen concerns Saudi Arabia’s
vital interests, but not Iran’s; for Iran, Yemen represents opportunities, not
threats. The Houthis are as a result much less dependent on Iranian support
than pro-Saudi factions, including Hadi and his allies, are on Saudi support.
Without Iranian assistance, the Houthis would remain a dominant actor; without
Saudi support, Hadi would be significantly weaker... [T]he Houthis are neither a
proxy nor a pawn of Tehran.
As such, Iran’s goals in Yemen are centred on undermining
Saudi efforts, while it focuses on issues that are far more important to its
overall strategic position in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as managing its
tense relationship with the US. Nonetheless, following the success of the
Houthis in seizing Sana’a in 2014 in particular, Iranian news outlets have
‘pushed the theme of Zaidi [sic] Yemenis as a downtrodden and oppressed
minority rising against Saudi funded oppression by the central government and
by Salafi Jihadis in Yemen’.
This follows a pattern of Iranian support for dissatisfied groups (regardless
of creed) located in unstable settings, such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine,
that allows Iran to accrue soft power by positioning itself as ‘the champion of
the oppressed and marginalised’.
The revitalisation of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula
(AQAP) and the spread of the Islamic State terrorist group to Yemen under cover
of the ensuing chaos may also have fed the perception of the wider sectarian
war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.
The ongoing pandemonium, for instance, has enabled AQAP to consolidate,
briefly run a de facto state in the seaport of Mukalla in 2015–16 and, ultimately,
expand its influence.
Despite being an early focus of US drone strikes under both the Bush and Obama
administrations, al-Qa’ida’s affiliates in Yemen are stronger than ever. AQAP,
which is proscribed in Australia and elsewhere, is often designated as one of
the most dangerous of al-Qa’ida’s affiliates, responsible for a number of
high-profile international terrorist attacks.
Prior to the war, AQAP was a small branch of al-Qa’ida primarily focused on
Western targets with ‘limited local appeal’; it has now ‘adapted to rapidly
shifting political terrain’ and morphed ‘into an insurgent movement capable of
controlling territory and challenging state authority’.
Tellingly, AQAP was not destroyed by UAE-backed forces in
Mukalla but, rather, chose to retreat from its territorial acquisitions. It has,
moreover, been reported that the UAE and its proxies have cut deals with AQAP
fighters, allowed them to retreat with their weapons, equipment and looted
money, and even co-opted or recruited them to fight the Houthi-led forces on
Also, the putative success of AQAP’s eviction from Mukalla
‘was almost immediately followed by accusations of corruption, cronyism,
arbitrary detention and torture by the new authorities and security forces’.
Amnesty International has accused prisons under UAE control of torture,
including sexual violence, beatings and electric shocks.
Fractures are beginning to appear within the Saudi-led
coalition, with conflict between the notional Hadi Government and various proxy
forces backed by the UAE.
In essence, the UAE has set up parallel security institutions outside of the
control of the internationally-recognised Yemeni Government. President Hadi has
described the UAE as an ‘occupier’ and the UAE has been accused of de facto
colonisation in southern Yemen, thereby breaching Yemeni sovereignty and
Some of these forces, moreover, such as the UAE-backed ‘Security Belt’, support
the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a separatist group dedicated to the
re-establishment of Southern Yemen.
By February 2018, fighting in the Yemeni Government’s temporary capital of Aden
had driven Hadi’s forces back into a small area around the presidential palace.
In October 2018, the STC called for a popular uprising against the Hadi Government
and urged independence due to the government’s inability to address the ongoing
See Figure 3 below for a map of the Yemen conflict.
map of the Yemen conflict (September 2018)
Source: ‘Yemen conflict—who controls what’, Al-Jazeera.
A recent report by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights documented
that war crimes may have been committed by all the primary belligerents to the
conflict, albeit attributing most of these violations to Saudi and UAE forces,
and their proxies:
report notes that coalition air strikes have caused most direct civilian
casualties. The airstrikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals,
weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.
Based on the incidents they examined, the Group of Experts have reasonable
grounds to believe that individuals in the [Hadi] Government of Yemen and the
coalition may have conducted attacks in violation of the principles of
distinction, proportionality and precaution that may amount to war crimes.
Indiscriminate airstrikes are perhaps unsurprising given that
in 2015, Saudi state TV declared the Sa’da governorate of Yemen, a Houthi
stronghold bordering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a military target in its
entirety and ordered civilians there to leave. Human Rights Watch has also
documented Saudi use of banned cluster munitions (neither Saudi Arabia nor the
United States has signed the relevant international treaty). Houthi-led forces
are also accused of indiscriminate shelling of urban areas, which may amount to
violations of international humanitarian law.
The UN report also notes:
and witnesses described to the Group of Experts persistent and pervasive
aggressive behaviour, including sexual violence perpetrated by the [UAE-backed]
Security Belt Forces and United Arab Emirates personnel. Examples include rape,
of men and women, and sexual violence against displaced persons, migrants and
other vulnerable groups.
Similarly, the report notes that the panel has received
reports of ‘ill-treatment and torture of detainees’ by Houthi-led authorities.
Both coalition and Houthi-led forces have been accused of
child soldier recruitment, a war crime in its own right:
Group of Experts received substantial information indicating that the
Government of Yemen, the coalition-backed forces and the Houthi-Saleh forces
have all conscripted or enlisted children into armed forces or groups and used
them to participate actively in hostilities. In most cases, the children
were between 11 and 17 years old, but there have been consistent reports of the
recruitment or use of children as young as 8 years old.
According to Kamel
Jendoubi, the chairperson of the Group of International and Regional Eminent
Experts on Yemen, ‘The primary legal responsibility for addressing these
violations and crimes lies with the [Hadi] Government of Yemen, which bears the
duty to protect persons under its jurisdiction’.
Acknowledging ‘the absolute gravity and seriousness of the
situation’ described in the report, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator
Marise Payne, said the Government is ‘strongly urging the parties to the
conflict to respect international humanitarian law, to minimise civilian
hardship, to allow immediate and unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies to
affected communities in need’. Australian Greens senator, Peter Whish-Wilson,
conversely, has called upon the Australian Government to ‘immediately suspend
arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’.
The escalating civilian death tolls detailed by the UN and
elsewhere continue to raise questions about the responsibility of the US, UK
and France, all of which provide Saudi Arabia and the UAE with arms shipments.
Additionally, the US provides logistical aid, such as intelligence sharing,
targeting information, and (until recently) mid-air refuelling for Saudi and
UAE aircraft, while UK military personnel are reportedly stationed at command
and control centres.
The Royal Air Force has also trained Saudi air force pilots both in Saudi
Arabia and the UK, ostensibly on the grounds that it would improve targeting.
A bi-partisan group of US lawmakers tried to halt US
military shipments to Saudi Arabia and the UAE through an amendment inserted in
the congressional defence spending bill for 2018 requiring Secretary of State,
Mike Pompeo, to certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made changes aimed
at minimising civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure.
This is despite UN and other reports asserting the contrary. The Obama
administration had previously suspended the shipment of some weapons over
concerns about civilian casualties but these were resumed by the Trump
In the UK, the legality of sales to Saudi Arabia has been
challenged in the High Court and the Ministry of Defence has tracked hundreds
of alleged Saudi violations of international law. 
Similarly, the Metropolitan Police have investigated allegations of war crimes
potentially prosecutable on grounds of universal jurisdiction.
In early November 2018, the US Secretary of Defence, James
Mattis, called for a ceasefire and peace talks within 30 days.
In a reversal of previous British policy, the UK has similarly urged the UN
Security Council to support this call for a ceasefire.
The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Penny Wong, echoed this call
on 14 November:
Labor has given
notice of a motion in the Senate strongly supporting the current efforts by the
United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary to build support among international and
regional partners for new action in the UN Security Council to bolster the
UN-led peace process.
The motion also
endorses the US Administration’s decision to no longer take part in inflight
refuelling operations for Saudi-led coalition aircraft involved in the
Labor urges the
Australian Government to support United Nations’ efforts to find a political
solution to the conflict in Yemen, and assure itself that any Australian
military cooperation in the region, including defence equipment sales, does not
inadvertently contribute to the suffering of the Yemeni civilian population.
Rather than de-escalating the conflict, however, these calls
have been followed by a surge in violence as both sides try to expand and
consolidate gains before any potential imposition of a ceasefire.
Amnesty International described how, on 11 November, the area around Hodeida’s
main hospital came under sustained attack, reportedly by the Saudi-led
Hundreds of medical
workers and patients, including a malnourished woman carrying her daughter in a
surgical robe and a man still hooked up to a catheter, fled in terror as a
series of large explosions rocked a hospital in central Hodeidah yesterday, according
to an eyewitness who spoke to Amnesty International.
A medical worker who was inside al-Thawra
hospital at the time told Amnesty International that hundreds of patients and
staff dodged a hail of shrapnel as they fled in panic. The sustained bombardment
near the hospital lasted more than half an hour.
Mundy observes that while commentary of the war in Yemen often speculates on
the complicity of the arms-suppliers, and the top three in particular (the US,
the UK and France), in potential war crimes stemming from the Saudi-led
military campaign, and may sometimes mention their role in providing diplomatic
cover for the coalition, their support for economic war and the blockade of
Yemen—the major causes of starvation, deprivation and disease—is barely
Australia made a number of
military shipments to Saudi Arabia in 2016–17 and plans to increase arms sales
to the UAE.
Dubai is also home to Australia’s central military operational hub in the
Middle East region, providing support for missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the
Gulf of Aden, among others.
The Middle East region involves Australia’s highest level of troop deployments,
with some 300 personnel in Afghanistan (Operation Highroad), 600 in Iraq
(Operation Okra), 500 in the UAE (Operation Accordion) largely providing
logistical support, and another 240 predominantly from the Royal Australian
Navy patrolling the seas as part of Operation Manitou.
Australian forces have provided air support against the Islamic State group in
Iraq and Syria, trained members of the Iraqi and Afghan security forces, and
engaged in counter-terrorism and anti-piracy maritime operations. According to
a September 2014 report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ‘Australia’s military presence in
the UAE is reliant on our good relations and solid relationship with the ruling
family, particularly the president Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan’.
On 29 March 2017, Co-Deputy
Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Scott Ludlam, introduced a motion in
the Australian Senate requiring the Minister of Defence (then Senator Marise
Payne) to disclose the Minister for Defence Industry’s itinerary from his December
2016 visit to Saudi Arabia to promote the export of military equipment, and ‘Any
documents relating to approvals for military exports to Saudi Arabia since
Senator Ludlam also moved:
That the Senate—
(a) notes with concern reports that:
(i) the Saudi
Arabian Government is breaking humanitarian law in its attacks on Yemen by
bombing schools, hospitals and refugee camps, and is pushing Yemenis towards
famine by blocking supply routes,
Australian Defence Department has approved four military exports to Saudi
Arabia in the past year and that the Australian Government is leading a push
for more, and
Minister for Defence Industry, the Honourable Christopher Pyne, MP, visited
Riyadh in December 2016 to promote Australian defence material to senior
government figures, including Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah al-Saud, the head of
Saudi Arabia's National Guard;
(b) notes that the Dutch Parliament voted in
2016 to ban military exports to Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom (UK) started a
review in February aimed at halting UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and former
US President Barack Obama halted the sale of precision-guided technology to
Saudi Arabia, all on humanitarian grounds.
was carried 39 votes to 22. Following the failure of the Defence Minister to
produce the documents requested, a second attempt on 10 May 2017 by Senator
Ludlam to have the Senate order their production failed by 40 votes.
In August 2018, the Defence Minister Payne stated that military
exports are assessed against five criteria:
obligations, human rights, regional security, national security and foreign
policy. The assessment of export applications is done on a case-by-case basis,
looking at the end use, the end user and technology that is being exported.
In September 2018, the new Minister of Defence, Christopher
Pyne, said that Australia was looking to conclude formal defence industry
agreements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In contrast, a number of European countries, including Belgium, Norway and
Germany, have announced restrictions or a halt to arms sales to Saudi Arabia
and the UAE.
The October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul elicited strong international condemnation,
but also threw the international actions of Saudi Arabia, including the war in
Yemen, into sharp relief.
The German Government, for instance, suspended the future sales of arms to Saudi
Responding to the German decision, Diana Sayed, the Crisis Campaigns
Coordinator for Amnesty International Australia, called on the Australian Government:
... to publicly report the exact nature of all arms
transfers to Saudi Arabia to date and to its allies in the war in Yemen, and to
cease the authorisation of any future arms transfers while there remains a
substantial risk these arms will be used to fuel human rights abuses.
Yet Australia chooses to wilfully ignore
all of the human rights violations
committed by Saudi
Arabia and continue to expand military exports to the
Kingdom—with 18 licenses approved to date.
There is reluctance on the Government’s
part to exercise transparency in its arms exports trade and this is incredibly
worrying. It must cease all military exports to Saudi Arabia.
On 24 October 2018 in Senate Estimates, Senator Payne, in
her new role as Minister for Foreign Affairs, ‘condemned the killing of
Mr Khashoggi in the strongest possible terms’ and confirmed the
Australian Government’s intention to conclude a memorandum of understanding
regarding the exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia.
However, Foreign Minister Payne has refused to rule out a ban on arms exports
to Saudi Arabia.
Australia currently holds a three-year position on the United
Nations Human Rights Council, which provides an avenue for drawing attention to
the conflict and promoting a multilateral approach to de-escalating the
conflict and averting an even more widespread humanitarian disaster in Yemen.
involvement of foreign nationals
There are also numerous reports of foreign nationals
fighting in Yemen, as well as others advising and training the UAE’s military,
including individuals from Australia, the US, South Africa and Latin America.
Some of these hold high-ranking positions in the UAE military.
In 2011, for instance, the UAE hired Erik Prince, the founder of the
organisation formerly called Blackwater, to train foreign personnel.
The presence of foreign soldiers, perhaps especially those
in positions of command, raises questions about culpability and accountability for
potential war crimes and/or other human rights violations detailed above.
For example, Stephen Toumajan, a former officer in the US Army, is now a major
general for the Emirati military and questions have been asked about his
potential accountability for war crimes.
Such questions are also important from an Australian
perspective because, as the Herald Sun reported in 2009, ‘Dozens of ex-Australian
soldiers work for the UAE military in leadership, training and mentoring roles,
developing links between the two armed forces’. This
notably includes former Australian SAS commander, Major General Michael
Hindmarsh (Retd), who is serving as Commander of the UAE’s Presidential Guard,
the country’s elite fighting force, and reportedly commands some 1,500 soldiers
There is, however, no suggestion or evidence implicating Major General
Hindmarsh in any wrongdoing.
It is also important to note the explanation of Major
General Hindmarsh’s involvement contained within internal Department of Defence
documents (dated February 2016) released on 5 November 2018 under a Freedom of
In June 2009, then Chief of Army (Lieutenant General
Gillespie) supported Major General Hindmarsh’s request to travel to the United Arab
Emirates to explore employment opportunities.
Personnel who retire or resign from active service, either
Australian Regular Army or Army Reserve, are considered by Defence to be
private citizens and are able to seek employment domestically or overseas.
Whether a person is accepted into a foreign military is a
matter for the country in question and their laws regarding military service.
The ADF has targeted recruiting schemes to meet particular personnel capability
requirements through recruitment of personnel with previous service in other
Under the current arrangements for the engagement of Major
General Hindmarsh (Retd) by the United Arab Emirates military, it is not appropriate
to consider him to be a mercenary. Major General Hindmarsh is a member of the
national armed forces of the United Arab Emirates.
Nonetheless, while the UAE is not a signatory to the
International Criminal Court, Australia is and Australia’s war crimes legislation
has universal jurisdiction. According to Professor Richard Tanter, given the
presence of Australians fighting in military conflicts abroad, ‘Lawyers have
pointed to Australia’s responsibility for holding its citizens accountable for
alleged war crimes under that statute to investigate and if necessary prosecute
under domestic war-crimes legislation or through the ICC’.
As the Yemen crisis rapidly approaches is fifth year, since
October 2018 there have been increasing calls for a ceasefire, notably by the US
and UK, the Saudi-led coalition’s principal suppliers of weapons. This follows an
increasing international focus on civilian deaths and the destruction of
infrastructure caused by the Saudi military campaign, as well as the ongoing
humanitarian crisis stemming from widespread famine and disease. At present,
the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who
recently visited Sana’a, is tasked with negotiating a framework prior to the
commencement of talks to avoid misunderstandings which may cause the situation
to deteriorate further.
Both the Houthis and the Hadi Government have long claimed
that they are open to negotiations and blamed the other for intransigence, but the
multiple parties and multiple overlapping conflicts comprising the war in Yemen
complicate such matters. It also debatable how much control the Hadi Government
actually exercises in the territories notionally under its control given its
conflict with UAE backed forces, some of whom are secessionist in nature. AQAP
and the Islamic State group also have their own interests in acting as spoilers
to prolong the chaos that has allowed them to flourish.
Saudi Arabia, moreover, essentially possesses a veto over
any agreement reached by the Hadi Government. According to Peter Salisbury, a
senior consulting fellow at Chatham House:
The Saudis won’t approve a
deal that leaves the Huthis with a degree of power—as an agreement is likely to
do—without key assurances regarding border security, the Huthis’ ballistic
missile capabilities and the rebels’ relationship with Iran. In turn, the
Huthis need to be confident that they will have a guaranteed place at the
political table in the long term, won’t have to give up all their weapons and
will have access to international trade through a seaport. Most importantly,
they need to be assured that the Saudis will stick to their side of the deal
before signing off.
In terms of Iran, Thomas Juneau explains:
In the regional balance of power, losses for Saudi Arabia
represent gains for Iran, as Tehran benefits from Riyadh’s being bogged down in
a difficult and costly conflict while insecurity spreads in its soft
underbelly. Also, Syria and Iraq represent far greater preoccupations for Iran...
In this sense, Iran’s support for the Houthis is more
reactive more than proactive ... Iran, to some extent, bandwagoned on Houthi
successes. It did not cause them, but decided to play its part to entrench
Nonetheless, US Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis, has
announced that peace talks will take place in December in Sweden, with UN
Special Envoy Martin Griffiths claiming that Yemen’s warring parties have given
‘firm assurances’ that they are committed to attending; experts, however, have
warned that Saudi Arabia might not take the necessary measures to facilitate
The UK has circulated a draft UN Security Resolution calling for an immediate
ceasefire and guarantees for the safe delivery of aid, which has been
reportedly opposed by Saudi Arabia.
Despite a brief lull in fighting and a temporary halt to the
Saudi-led offensive of Hodeida in mid-November, at the time of writing, fighting
described by residents as the worst yet has broken out once more in the key
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