Yemen is the new Syria. A civil war erupted there early this year between two factions, each claiming to be the legitimate government. Complicating matters, local chapters of Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State stepped up their operations and now control large swaths of Yemeni territory. Airstrikes are routine and the country's ancient cities lie in ruins.
The human cost of the Yemeni armed conflict is staggering. Clashes have left at least 2,577 civilians dead and more than 5,078 injured. In the first half of 2015 alone 86 percent of all combat-related deaths were civilian. Another 1.5 million people are internally displaced and thousands more are seeking refuge in Djibouti, Oman and Somalia. The United Nations estimates that at least 13 million residents are without access to clean water.
Yemen is considered to be key to stabilizing the Middle East, and an important conduit of humanitarian aid to the Horn of Africa. Many countries, including Brazil, are condemning the escalating violence there. The Brazilian government recently urged dialogue to solve the crisis, and it previously signed agreements with Yemen to promote food security, agricultural development and school programs.
But what keeps the bloody affair going is a relentless supply of weaponry from foreign powers.
The crisis in Yemen is about much more than control of the capital, Sana’a. The beleaguered country is caught up in a broader proxy war pitting a Saudi-led and United States-backed coalition that supports the now-ousted Hadi government, against the Houthi militia group now in control of the government in Sana’a and supported by Iran.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and their partners are not the only suppliers of arms and munitions. Brazil, a country not typically associated with meddling in the Middle East, is also indirectly involved. A number of unexploded ordnance and cluster munitions traced to a Brazilian manufacturer — Avibras Indústria Aeroespacial — recently showed up on the ground. They appear to be the property of the Saudi-led coalition.
According to Armament Research Services (ARES), a private research group, the Brazilian weapons recently documented in Yemen are SS-60 MK 4 cargo rockets, a type of cluster munition. They were launched from an ASTROS multiple-launch rocket system. Each rocket contains numerous smaller munitions, known as submunitions, which are dispersed over the target area with the intention of detonating on contact.
Because such munitions are indiscriminate and do not always explode after impact, they pose a continuing threat to civilians. The use of cluster munitions is banned in dozens of countries for that reason. Around 100 states have suspended their manufacture, stockpiling and use. Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the United States, among others, have not.
Avibras claims that its submunitions are supposed to self-destruct shortly after impact if the fuses fail to function. However, recent photographic evidence reveals that several submunitions failed to function properly during attacks in Yemen. The Brazilian-manufactured rockets were reportedly used by Saudi coalition forces on Oct. 27.
This wouldn't be the first time the Brazilian firm has sold weapons to countries with dodgy human rights records. In 2012, Avibras sold 36 of these same rocket launcher systems to Indonesia. The weapons were delivered in 2014 at a cost of over $400 million. And while Brazil’s protracted economic crisis is affecting the defense sector, Avibras nonetheless reported more than $25 million in profits last year. The company expects to surpass $250 million in sales in 2015 — 80 percent of which involves international arms exports.
Brazil is hardly a new entrant to the global arms market. The country has signed serious weapons deals with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya and dozens of countries throughout the Middle East and Africa since the 1980s. Domestic criticisms of government subsidies and tax incentives enabling the production of cluster munitions have fallen on deaf ears. In some instances Brazil's Ministry of Defense has actively intervened to keep companies like Avibras solvent, with apparently little regard for where the weapons may end up. This needs to change.
Brazil is now the second largest producer of small arms and ammunition in the Western Hemisphere and ranks fourth in the world. Avibras is currently exploring weapons deals with Saudi Arabia and Qatar valued at more than $2 billion and many other firms are doing brisk business abroad. Yet Brazil prides itself on promoting peace and security while upholding the highest standards of human rights. The brazen contradiction is increasingly difficult to maintain.
More positively, Brazil was one of the first countries to sign the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in 2013. The treaty bans states from transferring conventional weapons to countries that could use them to commit crimes against humanity. States also must analyze the risks of arms transfers causing gross violations of humanitarian law and violence against children, as in the case of Yemen.
Brazil certainly talks the talk when it comes to the ATT. Its diplomats contend that “Brazil is in favor of an international legally binding instrument that disciplines the licit trade of conventional weapons, small arms and light weapons and their ammunition” and has urged states to limit retention only for “individual or collective self-defense” purposes. This is a welcome development since the country’s export policies are currently regulated by a non-transparent decree dating back to the military dictatorship.
Sadly, Brazil is not walking the walk. It has yet to sign the convention banning cluster munitions. What’s more, the ATT has yet to be ratified and is languishing in the lower house of Congress. The prospects of the country ratifying the ATT any time soon are dim. Until it does, Brazilian-manufactured rocket launchers, small arms and munitions will continue wreaking havoc in wars around the world, including in Yemen.
Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro, Director of Research and Policy for the SecDev Foundation and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Fragility, Conflict and Violence. Nathan B. Thompson is a researcher at the Igarapé Institute.