Italian officials and German firm face legal action over Saudi arms sales

Human rights groups file grievance challenging arms exportations used in Yemen bombing

A rare legal action has been launched against Italian government officials and a major European arms manufacturer over alleged involvement in the aerial bombardment of Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.

A coalition of human rights organisations from Germany, Italy and Yemen filed a complaint on Tuesday with the public prosecutor’ office in Rome against officials from the Italian foreign ministry and the local subsidiary of the German conglomerate Rheinmetall, RWM Italia, over arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

The move was announced at a joint press conference of the organisations in Rome on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia leads a coalition conducting a bombing campaign of Yemen, aided by UK military consultants, against Houthi rebels.

Recent challenges to the Saudi bombing campaign by human rights and anti-arms organisations in the UK and elsewhere in Europe have failed because they have tended to be too broad.

The groups mounting the legal challenge in Italy hope that by focussing on a specific incident- a well-documented bombing on 8 October 2016 that left a family of six dead, including four children- they will increase their chances of success.

The legal challenge was lodged jointly by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights( ECCHR ), the Yemen-based Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights and the Italian Rete Italiana per il Disarmo.

The groups have asked prosecutors to investigate whether there is liability on the part of Italian foreign ministry officials tasked with authorising limbs exports and RWM Italia directors over alleged arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition.

Attempts by the Guardian to contact Rheinmetall for a response demonstrated unsuccessful.

Among the remnants that Mwatana said it found at the site of the 2016 attack on the village of Deir al-Jari in Hudaydah , north-west Yemen, was a suspension lug for holding bombs in place.

According to the complaint, the serial number on the lug identified it as part of a batch manufactured in June 2014 by RWM Italia, which has its headquarters in Ghedi in northern Italy, and production facilities in Sardinia.

Mwatana, which said it had arrived at the site of the bombing the day after the incident to interview witness and gather evidence, sent scenes to the Italian news organization Ansa last year.

Linde Bryk, a Dutch lawyer who worked in Kosovo and is now with the ECCHR, said:” What attains this case special are the remnants found at the site of the airstrike. This example is emblematic as it is not merely concerns Italy’s role but the general question on the responsibility of European governments and European limbs manufacturers for the consequences of arms exportations used by the Saudi-led coalition .”

She added that the lawsuit aimed to address the fact that simply having government exportation authorisation for arms sales does not shield these companies from liability.

Politicians and military personnel enjoy a high degree of protection against prosecution, but those who filed the occurrence are hoping a precedent can be set in which officials who authorise exportations as well as arms producers are not exempted.


Yemen’s civil war

2011 An Arab Spring-inspired uprising forces Yemen’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to agree to leave office.

2012 Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, previously Saleh’s deputy, takes over as chairwoman following an election. He was the only nominee. He struggles to unite the country’s divided political scenery, cope with food insecurity and al-Qaida threats.

2014 Houthi rebels( who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam) make advances and begin capturing the north of the country, an region they have historically controlled. In September they enter the capital, Sana’a. Hadi flees to Aden.

2015 A renewed rebel offensive forces Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia, which views the Houthis as an Iranian proxy force. It begins bombing what it says are” military targets” links with the Houthis and forces-out loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, Saleh. The Saudi air campaign receives backing from a coalition of Sunni Arab nations, as well as logistical support from the US, UK and France.

June 2016 The Saudi-led alliance is included on a UN blacklist of states and groups that violate children’s rights in conflict, reporting it is responsible for 60% of child deaths and injuries. After Riyadh protests, the UN removes it from the listing. Human Rights Watch warns of” political manipulation “. At least 6,200 people have been killed, 2.8 million displaced.

October 2016 An airstrike by the Saudi coalition hits a funeral in Sana’a, killing 140. The UN announces a 72 -hour ceasefire, which is allegedly violated by both sides.

2017 Were destroyed by two years of fighting, Yemen is described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Millions facing famine and the hazards of cholera.

November 2017 Saudi Arabia imposes a blockade on Yemen’s ports, following the firing of a missile at Riyadh from rebel-held territory in Yemen. Medications, inoculations and food are prevented from entering the country. The heads of the World Food Programme, Unicef and the World Health Organisation caution” untold thousands of innocent victims, among them many children, will die “.

Rebecca Ratcliffe

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Francesco Vignarca from Rete Disarmo said:” Despite the reported violations in Yemen, Italy continues to export arms to members of the Saudi-led military alliance. This is contrary to Italian statute 185/1990, which prohibits limbs exportations’ to countries engaged in armed conflict ‘. Further, it is in contrast with the binding provisions of the EU common position on limbs export control and the international arms trade treaty .”

Civil war broke out in Yemen after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels ejected the UN-recognised government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi from the capital, Sana’a, in 2015, prompting the Saudi-led intervention.

The country has since endured what has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with three-quarters of the population of about 22 million people in need of some form of aid, according to the UN.

If the Italian attorneys’ office declines to pursue the instance, the groups can consider going to higher courts, including the international criminal tribunal, which so far has not been investigating events in Yemen.

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