French-made ships are enforcing the blockade starving millions of Yemeni civilians
The findings of this investigation appear to contradict an October 2018 statement made by France’s Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, who in an interview said it was France’s “priority” that humanitarian aid be allowed past the blockade. The French arms investigation, which is being published in partnership with Lighthouse Reports, Arte, Mediapart, Radio France, and Bellingcat, corroborates information that emerged in April 2019, when Disclose published secret government documents detailing the use of French arms in the conflict in Yemen. Until then, French officials had carefully disavowed significant participation in the war, claiming that French arms being sold to Saudi Arabia were pursuant to contracts signed before the conflict began, and that any French arms being used in the conflict were employed defensively. Both of these claims were proven false by Disclose’s investigation.
The same leaked documents, dated September 25, 2018, indicate that three French-supplied warships “participate” in the naval blockade on behalf of Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United Arab Emirates, alongside French-supplied helicopters. Disclose has analyzed video footage, news reports, social media posts, and shipping data to elucidate the role of French-supplied warships and aircraft in two key instances.
Context: The Naval Blockade
The Saudi-led coalition established a policy of compulsory inspection for ships entering Yemeni ports in 2015, ostensibly to prevent preventing arms imports from falling into Houthi hands. As a result of this policy, Yemen-bound ships have reportedly been arbitrarily denied entry into ports, and many have faced excessive delays, establishing a de facto blockade of the ports under Houthi control. Under this policy, the coalition last year delayed Yemen-bound general cargo vessels for a total of 877 days, according to the United Nations.
The humanitarian effects of the blockade have been vast. Prior to the present conflict in Yemen, 90 percent of Yemen’s food, fuel, and medical supplies were imported, according to one U.N. report. Now, many fewer ships are requesting entry to Yemeni ports; food prices have risen across the country; and access to medicine, and fuel has been imperiled for many. More than 20 million people in Yemen are now food insecure, and nearly 10 million suffer from extreme levels of hunger. Eighty percent of the country’s population — 24 million people — are in need of humanitarian aid and protection, according to the U.N. Because of the scarcity of humanitarian aid, and the collapse of the country’s public health and sanitation systems, Yemen has been the locus of the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history.
A U.N. report published last year found that “the harm to [Yemen’s] civilian population caused by severely restricting naval imports was foreseeable, given the country’s pre-conflict reliance on imports.” It also concluded that naval and other restrictions on Yemeni ports of entry were imposed in violation of international rights laws, and could be criminal. At the time of the report’s release, no weapons had been found in vessel searches conducted by the coalition or U.N.
A separate report published in early September concluded that countries, including France, that indirectly or directly influence parties to the conflict in Yemen by providing them intelligence, logistical support, or arms transfers, “may be held responsible for providing aid or assistance for the commission of international law violations if the conditions for complicity are fulfilled.” The United States and Britain may also be complicit in the commission of war crimes.
What Our Investigation Found
Disclose has analyzed two YouTube videos posted on October 18, 2015 from accounts belonging to the Abu Dhabi Media News Center, the official news organization of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and Sky News Arabia, a media entity linked to the Abu Dhabi Emirate’s ruling family.
Both videos contain footage of the French-supplied Emirati corvette Al Dhafra, of the Baynunah class, intercepting the Indian commercial vessel Safina al Masum in what appears to be an instance of the coalition blockade in action. Armed people whose uniforms are consistent with those of Emirati special forces board the Indian vessel from in an inflatable dinghy bearing the name of the Al Dhafra. They are seen holding the people on board the Indian vessel at gunpoint.
Using geographical markers, Disclose has determined that the footage in these videos was taken in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, within the area of the coalition’s blockade.The same videos appear to show a helicopter aboard the Al Dhafra whose design is consistent with a French-supplied AS565M Panther helicopter. Eleven AS565M Panther helicopters were exported from France to the United Arab Emirates between 1999 and 2004, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
A third video published on YouTube in October 2017 by the news channel Saudi24 purporting to show the capabilities of the Royal Saudi Navy appears to demonstrates the participation of an additional French-supplied ship in the blockade. Footage appears to show the French-supplied frigate Al Damman conducting an inspection of the Mubarak Challenger, an offshore tugboat operated by Mubarak Marine. According to its website, Mubarak Marine has been supporting work at the Yemen Oil terminal since 2005.
According to industry press, the Cherbourg-based company Constructions Mecaniques de Normandie designed the Baynunah class of vessels with the Emirati company Abu Dhabi Shipbuilding, basing them on an older CMN design. ADSB was the primary shipbuilder on the fleet of Baynunah class vessels; CMN reportedly acted as a major contractor on the project.
Although it is unclear whether the inspection of the Mubarak Challenger was staged for propaganda purposes, the footage nevertheless shows that a French-supplied vessel in the possession of the Saudi Navy was present in the Saudi blockade in the waters off of the Yemeni port of Hodeida. A French-supplied AS565M Panther helicopter is also present on the Al Damman.
According to industry press, the Al Damman was built by the French company Direction des Constructions Navales, now known as Naval Group. It was reportedly launched in DNC’s Lorient shipyard.
In response to requests for comment from Disclose and its investigative partners, the prime Minister office provided a statement that, translated from French, reads in part, "France exercises a strict, transparent and responsible control on exports of war materials. Strict control, which is based on a thorough interdepartmental examination, the objective of which is to evaluate all the aspects of the proposed operation. … Responsible control, because all transfers are framed by imperatives related to national security but also to the respect of France's international commitments, some of which impose specific obligations on France. … Transparent control: all data on French exports are accessible online and updated annually as part of the report to Parliament and France's report on the Arms Trade Treaty.”
The Conseil des Industries de Défense Françaises, an association of defense industry groups in France, replied to requests for comment with the following statement, translated from French: "The action of industrialists falls within the strict framework of French regulations of the sale of military equipment for export. No sale of systems is carried out without prior authorization issued by an interministerial commission placed with the Prime Minister and presided on by the Secretary General of Defense and National Security. The industrialists are willing to apply the law in all its rigor and scope and are in compliance with international principles relative to the rights of man and of businesses.