The Welsh Government has been accused of “hypocrisy” over its partnership with a French arms company accused of complicity in war crimes.

Thales Group, one of the world’s largest military contractors, has formed a high-profile partnership with the government to run two cyber security research hubs in Ebbw Vale, receiving £15.1 million in Welsh public money.

The company, involved in digital technology as well as arms manufacturing, is accused of “complicity” in alleged war crimes committed in Yemen, where a devastating civil war has raged since 2014 - killing close to 400,000 people in what is considered the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world.

“Watchkeeper” drones manufactured by Thales have also been deployed by the UK Government to surveil asylum seekers crossing the English Channel, as well as by warring parties in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

A Freedom of Information request by The National found that the Welsh Government awarded Thales £15.1 million in grants between 2020-2021 to deliver two cyber security research facilities - the National Digital Exploitation Centre and ResilientWorks - in Ebbw Vale.

First minister Mark Drakeford personally attended the opening of ResilientWorks last month.

The National Wales: Mark Drakeford poses with a Thales Group automous vehicle prototype. (Picture Welsh Government)Mark Drakeford poses with a Thales Group automous vehicle prototype. (Picture Welsh Government)

In Yemen, a Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates-led military coalition has been implicated in “indiscriminate” attacks, bombing hospitals, schools, farms and residential neighbourhoods - with a 2018 coalition bombing of a school bus leaving 40 children dead.

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) - along with Yemeni human rights group Mwatana - lodged a lawsuit against Thales earlier this month, claiming that the firm had continued to sell fighter jets, missiles and guidance systems to the Saudi-led coalition, despite evidence that it was deliberately targeting civilians.

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The Welsh Government’s partnership with the firm - while declaring Wales a “nation of sanctuary” for refugees and asylum seekers - has been branded as  “hypocrisy” by Osamah Alfakih, advocacy director at Mwatana.

“It’s a representation of hypocrisy from the international community,” Mr Alfakih, speaking from the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, told The National this week.

“These governments that believe, or pretend, that they are respecting human rights, respecting international law, respecting the dignity of human beings in general - at the same time, they’re involved with other armed conflicts, other atrocities, in one way or another.”

The war in Yemen began in early 2014, when an Islamist rebel group - the Houthis - took control of Sana’a and forced the country's president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, to flee.

The National Wales: An airstrike in Sana'a, 2015. (Picture: Ibrahem Qasim)An airstrike in Sana'a, 2015. (Picture: Ibrahem Qasim)

Hadi had previously served as deputy president in the authoritarian regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled Yemen for decades until he was deposed and later assassinated following a popular uprising in 2011.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, formed a military coalition in support of the country’s official government - fearing that Iran, a fierce rival, would have too much influence in the region if the Houthis maintained control.

The country has been wracked with extreme violence ever since, with around four million people displaced from their homes, and UN investigators finding evidence that the Saudi-led coalition has tortured detainees, raped civilians, and used child soldiers as young as eight.

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Mwatana has been working to document atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict, as well as providing legal assistance to those affected by detention and torture.

“Our teams are spread all over the country, and they work on a daily basis to document human rights violations,” Mr Alfakih said.

“The situation here is deteriorating in general - not only on a humanitarian level, but also on the economic side, the basic services side.”

One of the tactics that warring parties have used against civilians is starvation, he said.

A report by Mwatana last year detailed how widespread famine in Yemen had been caused by the coalition’s repeated bombing of food stores, farms, water facilities and fishing boats - combined with Saudi warships enforcing a blockade on Yemen’s ports, as well as the Houthis’ extensive use of landmines and disruption of humanitarian aid efforts.

The National Wales: A bombed out school building in Yemen. (Picture: Julien Harneis)A bombed out school building in Yemen. (Picture: Julien Harneis)

As a result, the UN’s World Food Programme predicts that Yemen is “headed straight toward the biggest famine in modern history”, with just under half of the country’s entire population facing hunger and potential starvation. 

Women are affected particularly severely, and around 2.2 million Yemeni children are acutely malnourished.

Though a ceasefire in the country has held since April, the damage will not fade quickly.

“Even if the war stops now - and it’s very important that the war stops as soon as possible - it will take years for Yemen to recover from this conflict,” Mr Alfakih said.

Thales Group, meanwhile, makes no secret of its dealings with the Saudi regime.

On its website, the firm writes: “Thales is a trusted partner, across the globe, to help armed forces achieve their goals.

“Throughout the last 50 years, Thales has proven its reliability and commitment towards the users of its solutions and equipment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Of the ECCHR lawsuit against Thales, Mr Alfakih said: “We’re looking at avenues of accountability for violations committed by all warring parties in Yemen.

“It's still very frustrating to see how limited these opportunities are - but one of the steps we’ve been working on is the responsibilities of those states and companies who are selling, or providing, arms.

“This case is part of that.

“It’s very hard to predict how long it will take, but we hope that at least we’ll see those responsible held accountable - and that those harmed by these attacks are compensated, and are given appropriate reparations.

“The war in Yemen is not only a local war, a civil war - it’s international.”

Here in Wales, Thales’ partnership with the Welsh Government - also supported by the University of South Wales - is centred on cyber security research. 

The National Wales: Mark Drakeford speaks to students at the launch of ResilientWorks. (Picture: Welsh Government)Mark Drakeford speaks to students at the launch of ResilientWorks. (Picture: Welsh Government)

The National Digital Exploitation Centre (NDEC) in Ebbw Vale, which opened back in 2019, provides “support, training and project space to large organisations, SMEs and individuals”.

The Welsh Government gave Thales £11.4 million for the project.

“Big multinationals can benefit from use of the research lab to develop major technology advances and exploit the global opportunities of digital transformation,” Thales writes of the NDEC on its website.

ResilientWorks, for which Thales received a further £3.5 million from the government, is described as a space that will allow “leading tech companies to test and develop autonomous vehicle and power systems.”

“Thales and the Welsh Government announced ResilientWorks in May 2021, and it is planned that, within 3 years, ResilientWorks will have doubled the Thales presence in Ebbw Vale,” the company writes.

The site opened in late May, with first minister Mark Drakeford in attendance.

“These are the jobs of the future in the industries of the future,” Mr Drakeford said.

Thales also employs around 60 people in Aberporth, Ceredigion, to manufacture its Watchkeeper drones.

For Mr Alfakih, the contrast between how the world has responded to Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine and those levelled at Yemen by Saudi Arabia is a hurtful one.

In one stark example, prime minister Boris Johnson attempted to reduce the UK’s reliance on Russian oil and gas by personally visiting the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, unsuccessfully requesting that the regimes increase their oil production.

“There’s a double standard,” Mr Alfakih said.

“If the international community really does support human rights and accountability, they should deal with all armed conflicts in the world similarly.

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“What’s happened in Ukraine, what civilians are facing there, is very, very sad.

“But there, we saw how the international community took action very quickly - in weeks they had already established a mechanism through the UN Human Rights Council.

“This is great, and it's needed for the civilians in Ukraine - but in the case of Yemen, it’s different.

“We’re in the eighth year of this conflict now, and even the mechanism that we used to have from the UN Human Rights Council, the Group of Eminent Experts, was terminated.”

The Eminent Experts for Yemen was the team charged with investigating war crimes in the country. It was disbanded in October last year.


Response from Thales and the Welsh Government

The National approached both the Welsh Government and Thales Group for comment on this story.

We asked whether they could guarantee that technology developed at either the ResilientWorks or NDEC sites would not be for use in conflict zones, military settings, or against asylum seekers.

We asked if projects undertaken at the site will be subject to public scrutiny, including transparency about future customers.

We also asked whether the Welsh Government will have oversight over research undertaken at the facilities, whether it owns the facilities themselves, and whether it will have an ownership stake in any product developed at the labs.

Finally, we asked the Welsh Government how its partnership with Thales squared with its aspiration to make Wales a nation of sanctuary.

The Welsh Government declined to comment, citing the ongoing ECCHR lawsuit against Thales.

A Thales spokesperson said: “In December 2018, recognising the innovative nucleus of cyber businesses in the South Wales region, Thales established a base in Wales, in partnership with the Welsh Government, and academic institutions such as University of South Wales and Cardiff University, to develop a living laboratory campus for cyber security and resilience respectively.

The National Wales: A neighborhood in Sana'a, Yemen, a day after it was hit by a Saudi-led airstrike. (Picture: Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock) A neighborhood in Sana'a, Yemen, a day after it was hit by a Saudi-led airstrike. (Picture: Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock)

“NDEC has already won work for Wales from Innovate UK and the UK Government, and is working with companies from Europe and overseas, as well as Welsh companies.

“Our work in Ebbw Vale is about protecting, from cyber attacks, the critical national infrastructure that enables all of our everyday lives - for example, financial systems, transport, and power stations, and the operational technology that makes manufacturing industry work in factories and shops. 

“As well as degree apprenticeships, and an education programme aimed at opening up careers for Welsh schoolchildren in cyber and computing, our Ebbw Vale team are doing innovative work on green energy, autonomous vehicles, and the systems that keep electric cars powered and safe on our future roads.” 

The University of South Wales said: “USW leads on the National Digital Exploitation Centre’s education and outreach project, which aims to address skills requirements in the cyber security sector, working with local schools. 

“The project has a particular focus on getting more girls into the industry, increasing cultural diversity, and inspiring young people to develop cyber security skills.”

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