Yemen U-turn: Finland reverses human rights policy on military exports

Some of the government ministers who spoke out loudest against exports of military equipment to Middle East countries involved in conflicts have now changed their minds & issued unusually long permissions.

File picture of Wahash vehicle / Credit: Calidus

Finland has issued new licenses for military exports to the United Arab Emirates, reversing a 2018 policy promise to stop sales to any country involved in the Yemen conflict.

The move comes after intensive lobbying by the Emiratis towards a number of European countries; even as Finnish government ministers who argued vociferously for a ban on military exports while in opposition seem to have now changed their minds.

Although UAE has officially pulled its troops out of Yemen – where the conflict has paused this week during a two-week ceasefire – it still actively backs various anti-Houthi forces in alliance with Saudi Arabia.

Human rights experts say the unusually long validity of Finland’s new export licenses shows the Finnish government is acutely aware of how sensitive the issue is.

File picture of child at a refugee camp in Yemen, November 2028 / Credit: OCHA, Giles Clarke

Yemen’s bitter and bloody war 

According to the United Nations, Yemen remains the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with the conflict claiming the lives of tens of thousands of civilians and leaving more than 24 million people in need of assistance.

Over the weekend the country had it’s first confirmed case of Covid-19, and relief agencies say that with more than half of healthcare facilities no longer functioning the arrival of coronavirus is a “nightmare scenario.”

The situation in the country has been further exacerbated by alleged war crimes committed by both sides of the conflict. Airstrikes by a Saudi and UAE-lead coalition force have targeted homes, markets, hospitals, schools and mosques, with a terrible toll on the civilian population.

Human Rights Watch has documented how UAE forces kidnapped, arbitrarily detained, and killed aid workers, journalists and activists who were carrying out humanitarian missions in Yemen.

In October 2018, the European Parliament urged all Member States to suspend military exports to the parties involved in the Yemen conflict, with Germany, Norway and Spain among the first to cancel sales.

Finland followed suit in November 2018, after a News Now Finland investigation revealed that Finnish-made Patria vehicles sold to UAE, some fitted with Russian heavy weapons, were deployed in parts of Yemen where the United Nations says massacres took place.

File picture of Wahash vehicle / Credit: Calidus

Components for heavy weapons 

In a change of policy in March, Finland issued new licenses for military exports to the United Arab Emirates.

Sisu Axles Oy and Katsa Oy were granted licenses to sell 700 sets of axels and gears to UAE-based Calidus LLC, a company that produces air and land vehicles for military use.

The Finnish components will be used in the manufacture of the Wahash infantry fighting vehicle. A protype of the Wahash was on display at the IDEX weapons and defence technology in 2019, and reportedly equipped with Finnish gears, axles and an array of weaponry including 30mm automatic cannons, anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers.

Despite Finnish components again being used in the manufacture of heavy weaponry by a country actively involved in the Yemen conflict, the Ministry of Defence does not believe there are any barriers to granting new licenses for military components.

File picture of Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen (Centre) at a Helsinki press conference 25th March 2020 / Credit Lauri Heikkinen, VNK

“The Emirates announced in summer 2019 withdrawal of its troops from Yemen and since that its presences in Yemen have been greatly reduced” says Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen (Centre). While it’s true the UAE presence is “greatly reduced” the Gulf nation is still part of the Saudi military coalition and actively supports anti-Houthi forces, some of which are allied with the Yemen government, some not.

“The licenses issued now are for vehicle components not considered sensitive products. The exports in question are continuation of an ongoing project. Finland follows the situation in Yemen closely and considers each export license very carefully and critically, case by case” Kaikkonen tells News Now Finland.

He says the new export policy is not inconsistent with the 2018 decision to halt previous exports of military parts to UAE.

“In 2018 Finland announced restrictions to exports of weapons and weapon systems to United Arab Emirates due to the situation concerning the conflict in Yemen.  It was not a moratorium, but a decision to halt granting new licenses for destructive materiel.”

Still, the timing is certainly helpful for the Emirates.

In December last year Reuters reported that the UAE government had lobbied a number of European countries to get them to drop military export restrictions which had been introduced over concerns the equipment could be used in the Yemen conflict.

Although there is no indication whether the Finnish government was lobbied – Reuters reports at least Germany, Norway and Sweden were – nor how they might have responded to any Emirati overtures, the government’s policy U-turn will have been welcomed in Abu Dhabi.

Tweet from Krista Mikkonen (Green) about Finnish military exports to UAE

U-turn on military exports                      

The change in policy raises eyebrows particularly for Finland’s current government because some of the ministers who voted to start the pipeline for military exports from Finland to the UAE actively campaigned to stop it while they were in opposition in 2018.

Out of 19 ministers in the government, 16 voted in March to approve new licenses.

Only Minister of Health Aino-Kaisa Pekonen (Left) voted against the export licenses, while Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (Green) and Education Minister Li Andersson (Left) were absent when the vote was taken.

In 2018 Krista Mikkonen (Green), who is now the Minister of Environment, was one of the loudest political voices calling for restrictions on Finnish military exports to the UAE.

In a written question to Parliament in June that year, Mikkonen cited the civil war in Yemen as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, noting that UAE was bombing schools, hospitals and other civilian targets.

In September, after the News Now Finland investigation into Patria vehicles and spare parts exports, Mikkonen tweeted that Yemen was one of the worst crisis in the world and that it is not responsible for Finland to export weapons (sic) there.

In November that same year she wrote a lengthy blog about her opposition to Finnish military exports to countries involved in Middle East conflicts.

A little more than a year later Mikkonen flipped her position, but despite numerous calls and emails to her office seeking comment about why she changed her mind, there was no response.

File picture of Employment Minister Tuula Haatainen (SDP) at Helsinki press conference, 10th April 2020 / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, VNK

Similarly Tuula Haatainen (SDP), who is now the Minister of Employment, also called in 2018 for military exports to parties involved in the Yemen crisis to be halted.

In a newspaper interview Haatainen said that in particular Finland must comply with international law and not export military equipment to countries where they may be used against civilians. She has also seemingly now changed her mind about the situation with Yemen and the UAE.

Human rights organisation slams “hypocritical” policy

The decision to grant the export license has shocked Finnish human rights organisations, who consider there’s still risk of the UAE’s Wahash vehicles being used in human rights violations in Yemen.

“When the former government announced the moratorium on exports to the Arab Emirates, we felt that we had managed to convince the authorities to follow the basic rules of the Arms Trade Treaty” says Frank Johansson, Director of Amnesty Finland.

“That the new government now goes against this decision is very worrying and it shows that Finland’s export authorities do not have a clear policy. Clearly, I think it’s hypocritical.”

Amnesty believes that all military exports to the United Arab Emirates should be halted.

“No weapons should be exported to countries involved in Yemen, and this includes the UAE. We say this because of the documented risk in our own reports and also through media that weapons from these countries are being used in Yemen, or diverted to groups in Yemen, who have used them to commit human rights violations” Johansson tells News Now Finland.

File picture of Amnesty Finland Director Frank Johansson / Credit: Amnesty Finland Flickr

Johansson considers that components and spare parts for military vehicles are no different from guns and ammunition.

“It does not matter if we’re talking about guns or spare parts or components for instance, for armoured vehicles, without these parts the vehicles would not be in operation, and we know that these vehicles are being used in the war.”

Another red flag for human rights groups is the unusual validity of the new licenses.

Sisu Axels has a license that can be used until 2039, while Katsa has a license that’s valid until 2050.

“Some experts I have been talking to cannot remember that we have had licenses with the lengths like this” says Frank Johansson.

“This clearly shows that the government is actually aware of the fact that these licenses are a bit suspect.”