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Belgian foreign minister calls for halt to Saudi arms shipments

An investigation has concluded that Belgian arms are being used in Yemen war
Belgium manufactures the display for the Eurofighter Typhoon, used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen (Reuters)
By in
12 May 2019

Belgian leaders are considering suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, after an investigation revealed that they had been used in the ongoing war in Yemen.

Belgian-made rifles, turrets and ammunition are being used by Saudi forces in Yemen in their four-year war against Houthi rebels, according to an investigation by a consortium which includes Bellingcat and the NGO BelgianArms, published in Belgium daily Le Soir.

Responding to the report, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told public radio RTBF he believed "it would be good to suspend arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia" if it were shown they had been used "in an ongoing conflict, such as in Yemen," in which case he said the regional Walloonian government "must" take that decision.

The arms were sold by two companies based in Wallonia -  Mecar in Nivelles and FN Herstal in Herstal, Liege - with the export licence granted on condition the arms would only be deployed within Saudi Arabia.

"I think it would be good to suspend arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia" 

- Didier Reynders, Belgian Foreign Minister

Belgium's constitution places responsibility for such decisions on the producer region, in this case Wallonia, which owns the arms manufacturer FN Herstal, a major employer in the Liege area and an important export earner.

Reynders, who is also defence minister added: “It is true that there is a debate in Liege between the jobs of 15,000 employees of FN, and the difficulties encountered with certain customers like Saudi Arabia as far as human rights are concerned."

“Personally, I have always advised the regions to move towards an embargo. I have also argued for a European embargo, and backed moves in that direction.”

Willy Borsus, the region’s minister-president, promised to be more vigilant, but stopped short of announcing an embargo.

“The moment it appears that the weapons have ultimately not been used in the country or the place for which they are intended, the Walloon region will react,” Borsus said. “The reaction could take the form of the suspension of licences already agreed, which is what is now in question.”

Last year the Walloon government suspended several arms export licences to Saudi Arabia on the grounds that the human rights implications of the exports had not been fully considered, following a court appeal by campaigners.

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The Walloon government continued to issues export licences for sales to Saudi Arabia on condition the weapons are for internal use, mostly by the Saudi National Guard.

But according to the investigation, which used publicly available data, government documents and social media,  Belgian-made FN F2000 rifles have been used by National Guard fighting inside Yemen and Belgian-made turrets have fired Belgian-made ammunition into Yemen from Saudi soil.

The investigation also found that Belgium manufactures the displays for the Eurofighter Typhoon and the MRTT that refuels the jets - both used by Saudi Arabia.

The conflict in Yemen has triggered what the United Nations describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with 3.3 million people still displaced and 24.1 million - more than two-thirds of the country's population - in need of aid.

The issue of Saudi arms sales divides European governments, with French President Emmanuel Macron defending such sales Thursday as part of "the fight against terrorism".

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Germany, however, suspended arms sales to Riyadh after the killing last year of Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, posing a problem for European partners because it can affect weapons produced jointly.

A diplomatic source said the issue would be discussed Monday by EU foreign ministers in Brussels, because Saudi Arabia is also backing Libyan rebel leader Khalifa Haftar in his bid to overthrow a government in Tripoli that has EU backing.

In February, an investigation by Amnesty International documented that a machine gun made by FN Herstal was being used by “The Giants”,  a Yemeni militia backed and supplied by the UAE.