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An open source investigation published by Amnesty International today highlights a growing danger in Yemen’s conflict as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recklessly arms militias with a range of advanced weaponry.

The investigation, “When arms go astray: Yemen’s deadly new threat of arms diversion to militias,” shows how the UAE has become a major conduit for armored vehicles, mortar systems, rifles, pistols, and machine guns – which are being illicitly diverted to unaccountable militias accused of war crimes and other serious violations.

“While the USA, the UK, France and other European states have rightly been criticized for supplying arms to Coalition forces, and Iran has been implicated in sending arms to the Huthis, a deadly new threat is emerging. Yemen is quickly becoming a safe haven for UAE-backed militias that are largely unaccountable,” said Patrick Wilcken, Arms Control and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.

“Emirati forces receive billions of dollars’ worth of arms from Western states and others, only to siphon them off to militias in Yemen that answer to no-one and are known to be committing war crimes.

“The proliferation of these fighting forces is a recipe for disaster for Yemeni civilians who have already been killed in their thousands, while millions more are on the brink of famine as a direct result of the war.”

The armed groups on the receiving end of these dodgy arms deals – including “The Giants”, the Security Belt and Elite Forces – are trained and funded by the UAE, but are not accountable to any government. Some of them stand accused of war crimes, including during the recent offensive on the port city of Hodeidah and in the UAE-backed network of secret prisons in southern Yemen.

States supplying arms to UAE

According to publicly available data, since the outbreak of the Yemeni conflict in March 2015, Western states have supplied the UAE with at least $3.5 billion worth of arms. Among them are heavy conventional weapons – including aircraft and ships – small arms, light weapons and associated parts and ammunition.

Despite the serious violations attributed to the UAE and militias it backs, the following states have recently supplied the Emiratis with arms: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Czechia, France, Germany, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the UK and the USA, among others.

Amnesty International analysed open-source evidence around the battle for Hodeidah and found that military vehicles and weapons supplied to the UAE are now widely in use by militias on the ground.

A wide variety of US-supplied armored vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns, including M-ATV, Caiman and MaxxPro models, have been documented in the hands of UAE-backed militias Security Belt, Shabwani elite forces and “The Giants”.

Belgian Minimi light machine guns, also likely sold to the UAE, are being deployed by “The Giants”. Other weapons used by UAE-allied militias in Hodeidah include Serbian-made Zastava MO2 Coyote machine guns and the Agrab armored-truck-mounted Singaporean 120mm mortar system – the UAE is the only country known to purchase this combined weapon system.

Elsewhere in Yemen, the UAE has directly trained and funded militias including the Security Belt and Elite Forces, which operate a shadowy network of secret prisons known as “black sites”.

Amnesty International and others have previously documented these forces’ role in enforced disappearances and other violations at these facilities – including detention at gunpoint, torture with electric shocks, waterboarding, hanging from the ceiling, sexual humiliation, prolonged solitary confinement, squalid conditions and inadequate food and water.

The UAE-backed militias running these black sites wield Bulgarian rifles and drive US armored vehicles.

Violating the Arms Trade Treaty 

Many of the states that continue to supply arms to the UAE are party to the global Arms Trade Treaty. Some have other legal obligations as EU members or under domestic laws not to transfer arms being used to commit war crimes. By persisting in transferring arms to the UAE, despite overwhelming evidence those arms are being used in war crimes and other serious violations in Yemen, they are flouting these obligations.

Amnesty International calls on all states to stop supplying arms to all parties to the conflict in Yemen until there is no longer a substantial risk that such equipment would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway have recently announced suspending arms transfers to the UAE.

“As the next round of peace talks on Yemen’s conflict looms, arms-supplying states need to reflect hard on how their arms transfers are continuing to directly and indirectly fuel war crimes and other serious violations. The proliferation of unaccountable, UAE-backed militias is worsening the humanitarian crisis and posing a growing threat to the civilian population,” said Patrick Wilcken.

“Only a handful of countries have done the right thing and stopped the conveyor belt of arms to the Yemen’s devastating conflict. Others must follow in their footsteps or they will share responsibility for the devastating toll these billions of dollars’ worth of arms transfers are wreaking on civilians in Yemen.”

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