How Brazilian weapons sold to Saudi Arabia are helping to kill civilians in Yemen
Geneva hosted an implementation meeting of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) last February 29. The ATT is the first comprehensive multilateral agreement to regulate international transfers of conventional arms, a global market worth US$ 80 billion annually.
Yet the meeting in the Swiss city has had as main agenda administrative issues, activists of Control Arms coalition saw the meeting an opportunity to highlight the role of ATT State Parties and signatories in supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia. A coalition led by the Saudis has been fighting Houthi rebel movement in Yemen, with a death toll of thousands of civilians after large and systematic air attacks. More than 6,000 people have died since March 2015 — at least half composed by civilians — and more than 80% of Yemen’s population is in extreme hunger, in urgent need of water and care, according to the United Nations.
According to report by the ATT Monitor, a Control Arms project, the campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen have been responsible for serious human rights violations and possible commission of war crimes. The document lists 11 countries — including France, Britain, United States and Germany — which have sold arms such as drones, missiles and bombs worth US$ 25 billion to Saudi Arabia in 2015.
This scenario led the European Parliament to recommend an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia last February 25, based on the argument that the United Kingdom, France and other European countries should not sell weapons to a country accused of attacking civilians in Yemen. Only Britain have issued US$ 3 billion in weapons licenses since the campaign coalition led by the Saudis began operations in Yemen in March 2015.
And what’s the matter with Brazil in this story?
US$ 109,559,247. This is the value of exports of arms and ammunition from Brazil to Saudi Arabia in 2015, according to information provided by the Brazilian government database to UN Comtrade. Much of this amount relates to exports of Avibrás Industria Aeroespacial, a Brazilian company headquartered in São José dos Campos (SP) that designs, develops and manufactures defense products and services. The Avibrás portfolio includes from artillery products and air defense system to rockets, missiles and armored vehicles.
Among the Avibrás products is the Astros II (Artilhery Saturation Rocket System), multiple launch rocket system with ability to launch ammunition of various calibers at distances between 9 and 300 kilometers. Generally regarded as the debut product of Brazilian defense industry in international market, the Astros system was developed to meet Iraqi government demand in the early 1980s, intended to by used in Iraq-Iran war. Versatile, the Astros system allows the use of different warheads, including cluster munitions.
Cluster munitions: violations “made in Brazil”?
Cluster munitions consist of missiles that carry multiple explosive submunitions dispersed from a container. An explosive submunition is designed to be scattered in multiple quantities in a container and should explode before, during and after impact. The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) — also known as the Oslo Convention — was opened for signature in December 2008 and has 98 States Parties and 108 signatories. The CCM prohibits the use, development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention and transfer of such munitions.
Brazil has not signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, refusing to join the scheme of the Oslo Convention on grounds that such munitions are an important tool in its defense strategy and national security apparatus, being part of the Brazilian deterrence policy.
These weapons have serious risk to human health through its indiscriminate effects, extent of the area affected by the pump, post-conflict effects, failure rate and high explosive power of each submunition. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, such weapons already contaminated the soil of 20 countries and killed and wounded at least 13,000 civilians. This number may be underestimated, since it refers only to cases where it was possible to prove that the bomb was the cause of death or mutilation.
And what does this have to do with Brazil selling arms to Saudi Arabia?
Reports of organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch show that the coalition led by Saudi Arabia could have used a Brazilian model of cluster munitions in Ahma, northern Yemen in October 2015. The ammunition would have injured at least four people, and contaminated wide area with deadly unexploded submunitions.
Given the difficult access to the region in war, both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have been unable to verify “in loco” the submunitions found in Ahma. Nevertheless, the pumps have “strong resemblance” to the model manufactured by Avibrás, which could have been deployed from an Astros II system.
According to Amnesty International, cluster unexploded munitions found in the attack site show strong similarities in relation to Brazilian-made cluster bombs used by Saudi Arabia on other occasions.
Questioned by Amnesty International, Avibrás stated that the ammunition “resemble” the company’s projects, not ruling out the possibility that the munitions have been produced by it, stating that it would determine in more detail the facts.
An expanding market
Analysis of figures released by the Brazilian Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade (MDIC) indicates that Avibrás alone sold more than US$ 115 million to Saudi Arabia since 2010, including arms, munitions and armored vehicles. Notwithstanding the impressiveness of this number, one detail draws attention: 93% of this amount was sold in 2015 alone, a 140-fold increase over 2014.
The business opportunities in Saudi Arabia and the region have not gone unnoticed to the arms industry in Brazil. In inaugural speech as president of Abimde (Brazilian Association of Defense and Security Materials Industries) held on January 26, 2016, Carlos Frederico Queiroz de Aguiar pointed out the interest in expanding the partnership of the Brazilian defense industry with Middle Eastern and North Africa countries, either through exports or by industrial activities in these countries.
"We have a long partnership in this sector with the Arab world. We can expand it to meet their demands, as well as help them overcome their difficulties, such as jobs. We can help them create jobs, Brazil has no restriction on the transfer of technology to the Arab countries, then we could thus lead our technology to them. We will work in this direction" (Carlos Queiroz Frederico de Aguiar, President of Abimde — Brazilian Association of Defense and Security Materials Industries)
Aguiar succeeds Sami Youssef Hassuani ahead of Abimde for the period 2016–2018. Hassuani is president of Avibrás.
How to know more?
To learn more about the role of Brazil and its companies in the international market of conventional weapons, see the dossier Weapons and Human Rights published in Sur Journal #22. This contains an article written by me and Camila Asano entitled “Arms as foreign policy: the case of Brazil” available here.