The Belgian civil liberties organisations the League of Human Rights (LDH) and CNAPD, supported by the Belgian francophone section of Amnesty International, on December 18 lodged an appeal before the Council of State, the top administrative court of Belgium, to suspend and cancel the arms export licenses for Saudi Arabia, which were granted by the minister-president of Wallonia last October.
Moving towards an embargo
The two organisations are appealing for three reasons. First, they want to prevent military-style weapons and light weapons from being sent to Saudi Arabia, where they will be used to perpetrate mass violations of fundamental rights (which are committed on a regular basis by this country, not only inside its borders but also outside, such as in Yemen). Many international reports show evidence of these violations. According to many sources, such as Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations and others, it is clear that arms sold to Saudi Arabia are very likely to be used against civilians for repressive purposes.
Secondly, this legal appeal offers the opportunity to move forward in the implementation of a European embargo. Indeed, the EU Common Position policy requires a member state to consult other members states that had already refused to issue a license for a similar export (as far as the recipient country and the type of arms that are sent are concerned), before issuing any arms export license. If Belgium were to refuse to authorise certain arms export to Saudi Arabia, the country would then be able to object over the fact that rather similar exports are authorized by other member states. However, the final decision is to be made by each member state,and the government is required to provide a detailed justification if it decides to authorise an export that is essentially identical to banned for export by another member state.
Such a refusal by a Belgium federal region (Wallonia) would send a powerful message to other EU member states. One must also underline that many international bodies (such as the UN, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe), as well as national bodies (and first and foremost, the Federal Parliament of Belgium) agree on imposing an embargo on arms sales to the Saudi Kingdom.
A European-level embargo would not only be consistent with the fight against terrorism (Saudi Arabia is often cited as a country that provides money and weapons to terrorist groups), but would also make irrelevant the argument that 'if we do not sale these arms, other European countries will'.
The law needs to change
Last but not least, such an aberrant granting (including 28 licenses) raises, once again, the issue of the lack of transparency surrounding the decision-making process of the granting of such authorisations. In 2011, LDH and CNAPD successfully challenged the granting by Wallonia of similar licenses for Libya, which led to a legislation change in this Belgium region. We now have no choice but to note that the changes are insufficient to guarantee the transparency and public debate that are essential in this kind of cases. New legislative changes are therefore urgently needed.
Regardless of the outcome of this legal appeal, LDH and CNAPD, supported by Amnesty International Belgium, are calling for:
- The Wallonia region to suspend its arms sales to Saudi Arabia and that it ensures that other EU countries comply with the Common Position in order to reach a European embargo.
- The reform of the Wallonia legislation on arms exports in order to guarantee the transparency and public debate on this issue.