South Africa arms exports to Saudi Arabia and UAE come under scrutiny

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Court order demands arms companies that have export permits be disclosed after rights groups filed an application to stop weapons transfers over Yemen war

A South African court has ordered the country’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) to provide a list of companies that have permits to export weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, following a court battle over their role in the devastating conflict in Yemen.

Earlier this month, the Southern African Human Rights Litigation Centre (SALC) and Open Secrets, a non-profit organization investigating economic crime, submitted an application in a high court in Pretoria calling for both the names of companies that can deliver arms to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as well as a judicial review of the NCACC’s authorizations of arms exports to the two countries.

South Africa exported between 22 percent and 31 percent of controlled items valued between 4bn and 4.6bn South African Rand (between $287m and $330m) in 2019 and last year, respectively, to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Open Secrets’ Hennie Van Vuuren said the order meant that they had “cleared the first major legal hurdle”.

“Now we get to the urgent business of stopping the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have targeted civilians in Yemen and are accused of violating international law,” he said, as quoted by the South African online newspaper TimesLive.

Van Vuuren said this was likely to be a lengthy process involving powerful institutions and large arms companies.

“But it is vital that we challenge a practice which has seen a profit being made from human rights abuse in countries like Yemen,” he said.

Evidence has also emerged that South African weapons have been found at the scenes of civilian attacks in Yemen.

“The act draws a line in the sand between the secretive apartheid arms machinery and the post-apartheid commitment to being a responsible member of the international community … No longer would weapons be sold to the highest bidder regardless of how they would be used,” SALC’s Anneke Meerkotter said in an affidavit.