South African court orders judicial review of permits for arms export to Saudi Arabia and UAE

The court also ordered the government body responsible for implementing the country’s  National Conventional Arms Control Act to publicly disclose the names of all South African companies that have obtained permits to export weapons to the two Arab countries

June 18, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Representational image: The file photo shows Saudi Arabia’s forces taking part in military exercises at the Saudi-led coalition military base in Yemen's southern embattled city of Aden. Photo : Press TV

A South African court has ordered the country’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) to disclose the list of companies that hold permits to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). It has also sought a judicial review of the process through which the NCACC grants authorizations for arms exports to the two countries. The order was in response to an application filed by two rights organizations — Southern Africa Human Rights Litigation Centre (SALC) and Open Secrets.

The court order comes in the wake of increasing criticism of the war crimes and human rights violations the two countries are accused of committing through military intervention in the war in Yemen. Evidence has also surfaced that South Africa-made conventional arms have been found at the scenes of attacks on civilians. 

According to reports, South African exports of controlled arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2019 were valued at approximately 4 billion (USD 287 million) and 4.6 billion South African Rand (USD 330 million) respectively, making up 22% and 31% of all South African controlled arms exports.

The Saudi-led military coalition’s intervention in Yemen has resulted in countless deaths. The airstrikes on Yemen, most of which are carried out in civilian areas, have rendered millions homeless and internally displaced. The military intervention, along with the Saudi air and sea blockade, has also given rise to a devastating humanitarian crisis in the country due to the acute shortages of food, medicine and other essential commodities, forcing tens of millions of Yemenis to rely on international humanitarian aid for survival. 

The Gauteng High Court in Pretoria passed the urgent order after a hearing which lasted less than half an hour as the NCACC did not file court papers nor appeared in court for the hearing. SALC and Open Secrets welcomed the court order. 

Hennie Van Vuuren of Open Secrets called it the “clearing of the first major legal hurdle in a lengthy legal process involving powerful state institutions and large arms companies,” adding that “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.” Significantly, the court order wasn’t opposed by the NCACC or the South African Defense minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

According to South African law, specifically the National Conventional Arms Control Act (NCACA), the country is forbidden from supplying arms to governments that are engaged in committing human rights violations and war crimes. The law also states that South African weapons must not be exported to countries that use them to sustain and intensify regional military conflicts. 

Internationally, the United Nations (UN) Experts group on Yemen also accused Saudi Arabia and UAE of committing war crimes and violating international humanitarian law. The United Nations has urged other countries to temporarily suspend or permanently stop all arms supplies to all the parties involved in the war in Yemen.

In their affidavit in the court, SALC’s Anneke Meerkotter, referring to the NCACA, stated that it “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.” She also noted that despite the huge amount of evidence for Saudi and UAE war crimes and human rights violations, the NCACC approving the sale of conventional weapons to the two countries is blatantly unlawful.

The government of South Africa will now have to publicly explain why it has chosen to approve the exports of controlled arms to the two countries. The NCACC, as part of the judicial review, will also have to disclose the basis on which it decided to grant permits to South African companies to supply arms to the two countries in the face of growing criticism and mounting international public opposition. Several major world powers and some of the top arms exporters in the world, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have decided to either suspend arms supplies or ordered a review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Others, such as Germany and Italy, have banned arms exports to the two countries completely.