Relations between South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are on the up – a source of shame for the South African state. Despite being profitable and important for the African economy, these relations are deeply linked to the arms and military trade for the Arab nations involved in the war on Yemen, where several cases of human rights violations have been reported.

South Africa is a nation historically committed to the protection of human rights, and its national law prohibits military partnership with nations that violate such rights. This means that, in practice, the South African state is publicly violating its own principles and prioritising profit over law and human rights.

As a way to repair its historical error after decades of extremely racist policies including segregation, South Africa strives to be a nation that defends democratic and humanitarian principles. To this end, the country has a rigid constitutional doctrine in defence of human rights, committing itself to combat violations of such rights not only in its territory but also abroad.

South African law on military trade prohibits the supply of weapons to countries that are using the equipment to violate human rights. However, precisely in the face of the greatest humanitarian crisis of the contemporary world, the war in Yemen, the South African government’s posture seems to be lenient and the African nation is becoming one of the greatest arms suppliers to the Saudis.

South Africa has progressively taken the leading role in the arms and military equipment trade for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Despite the billionaire partnership, the government maintains its participation in several international campaigns to help the Yemeni population, defending respect for human rights in the country, which has drawn the attention of many analysts.

Some commentators call South African government “hypocrites” for this ambiguous position; others see the case as pure “real politics”, with immaterial values being violated by strategic necessity.

In fact the conflict in Yemen is currently one of the most profitable businesses for the South African economy, accounting for notable growth in the country’s arms sales. Trade in military equipment between South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2013 represented only 3% of total South African arms exports. The number jumped to 42% in 2015 and 49% in 2016, a gigantic increase.

More recent data has yet to be shared with the public, but it is estimated that in all South Africa has already profited to the value of 550 million dollars through arms sales during the Yemen war.

The weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE are of various models and mainly include modern aerial equipment, such as drones, used by Saudis in operations that have generated controversy in international society for involving visible violations of human rights, such as attacks against civilians.

In addition to drones, mortars, armored vehicles and several types of bombs have been sold frequently. Between 2019 and 2020 sales remained largely at a standstill due to problems with the inspection rules, which were later resolved.

Most of these weapons are manufactured by the South African company Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM), which in 2016 opened a factory in Saudi Arabia, increasing the flow of goods without the high import costs.

It is important to note, however, that South Africa is just one of several countries that have profited in large amounts from the Yemeni humanitarian crisis.

The US and UK are ahead of South Africans in arms sales, having earned billions of dollars from the war. Between 2015 and 2018 the US sold more than 13 billion dollars in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The British, in the same sense, received more than 20 billion dollars from the Arab countries to send weapons.

As criticisms began to emerge against such a partnership due to human rights violations, the Trump administration maintained a stance of support for the Saudis. This stance, however, began to change radically with the rise of Biden, whose commitment to humanitarian norms is much greater. Not only did Biden temporarily block the arms trade for the Saudis, he also started a serious diplomatic crisis with the Kingdom. US arms sales to the UAE, currently under inspection, are also likely to cease.

The UK has also started a campaign against this business and the legality of trade relations with the Saudis is currently being discussed in the courts and may end at any time. Still, Germany, which followed the US and UK in sales, already banned such a partnership three years ago. Earlier this year Italy also banned any arms trade with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Contrary to the western nations, South Africa continued to sell and increase its exports and it is likely to soon become the largest supplier of arms to the Arab nations, in the face of the crisis between these countries and the West. Now the South African potential is even greater, as the country will be able to maximise arms production and occupy the space of nations that have banned trade. But, for that, changes will be necessary in the domestic legal structure.

South African actions will no longer go unnoticed in its trade with nations that are committing humanitarian crimes in Yemen, as countries that also provided arms, in addition to banning their trade, will try to make South Africa follow the same path. By ignoring them South Africa could profit in billions of dollars, but it will be violating its own law. On the other hand, by banning trade, it will lose an important international partnership that cannot be ignored.

The most important thing, above international alliances, is that the South African government must be consistent with its own rules and respect them. South African law is clear: the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, the government agency that regulates the arms trade, prohibits the sale of military material to nations that commit humanitarian crimes, applying the principles defended by the country's constitution. And no nation can have its main economic activities in illegal trade.

Lucas Leiroz is research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

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