A top American lawmaker says the Obama administration’s military assistance to Riyadh may violate U.S. law.
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On Sept. 28, the same day President Barack Obama addressed world leaders before the U.N. General Assembly, warplanes from a U.S.-backed Saudi coalition struck a wedding party in Yemen. The attack killed as many as 135 people near the port city of Mokha and raised concerns about the possible perpetration of war crimes in Yemen.
At the United Nations, the U.N. Security Council has devoted little attention to the impact that coalition airstrikes have had on civilians in Yemen. The United States — which frequently condemns the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs in heavily populated neighborhoods — has registered virtually no public outrage over the Saudi-led coalition’s apparently indiscriminate bombing raids in Yemen. Obama didn’t even mention Yemen in his U.N. speech, which faulted Russia’s military intervention in Syria on behalf of a government that stands accused of killing the vast majority of the more than 200,000 people who have died in Syria’s civil war.
U.S. support for a military campaign that is inflicting extreme hardship on civilians in one of the Mideast’s poorest countries provides an awkward counterpoint to the Obama administration’s stated commitment to stand up for the region’s oppressed people. At the dawn of the Arab Spring, Obama vowed to oppose “the use of violence and repression against the people of the region” and to support “the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people.”
Washington’s support in Yemen has also provided ammunition to critics who have seized on the Saudi-led coalition’s use of American weapons against civilian targets to paint the United States as a hypocritical power that lectures its Syrian adversaries on human rights abuses while furnishing its allies with cluster bombs and precision rockets.
- Behind closed doors, the United States has sought to limit international scrutiny of rights abuses in Yemen. Last Friday, the United States blocked a proposal in a U.N. Security Council sanctions committee to have the committee’s chair, Lithuanian U.N. Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, approach “all relevant parties to the conflict and stress their responsibility to respect and uphold international humanitarian law and human rights law,” according to Security Council diplomats. The committee also recommended that Murmokaite ask the key players to cooperate with its investigations into potential human rights abuses in Yemen.
The episode, however, provides a brutal reminder of a U.S.-backed conflict that has exacted a terrible toll on civilians and that puts the United States, which supplies the coalition with intelligence and logistics, on the defensive. And it has led human rights advocates and some U.S. lawmakers to question whether Saudi Arabia and the United States may be complicit in war crimes in Yemen.
- “The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has received too little attention, and it directly, or indirectly, implicates us,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who noted that the airstrikes may violate legislation he authored barring the United States from providing security assistance to countries responsible for gross human rights abuses.
- “The reports of civilian casualties from Saudi air attacks in densely populated areas compel us to ask if these operations, supported by the United States, violate” that law, Leahy told Foreign Policyin an emailed statement. In any event, he added, “there is the real possibility that [the air campaign] is making a bad situation worse.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), said the administration needs to “close the daylight” between the United States and its Gulf allies. He echoed claims by Gulf powers that Yemen’s Shiite Houthis are receiving backing from the Iranian government.
- “The perception of a disengaged America and a resurgent Iran have led the GCC to take a stand,” Corker said, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, at an Oct. 6 hearing on Yemen. Corker credited the Saudi-led coalition’s “use of American equipment and training with surprising effectiveness.” But he acknowledged that the campaign has been carried out with an “intolerable level of civilian casualties.”
Last week, a U.N. panel of experts responsible for tracking human rights violations and enforcing sanctions against individuals who threaten Yemen’s peace concluded that the Saudi-led coalition, Houthi insurgents, and fighters loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, all have routinely violated civilians’ human rights, according to a copy of a confidential report documenting the panel’s findings.
The panel singled out the coalition for committing “grave violations” of civilians’ rights, citing reports of indiscriminate airstrikes, as well as the targeting of markets, aid warehouses, and a camp for displaced Yemenis. It also raised concern that coalition forces may have intentionally obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to needy civilians.
The panel also faulted the coalition for providing civilians with insufficient warning before launching airstrikes.
About an hour or two prior to one bombing raid in the Houthi stronghold of Sadah, the coalition dropped warning leaflets across the city, according to a source cited in the report. But the warnings were largely ineffective as many of the city’s residents are illiterate. A second source told the panel that the coalition had issued a radio warning as early as seven hours before it started dropping bombs. But even that was not enough to allow civilians to evacuate. A severe fuel shortage — caused by the coalition’s blockade of Yemen’s ports — prevented residents from filling their gas tanks, forcing them to flee by foot.
- “It is impossible for the population of the entire province of Sadah to leave within a few hours,”Llano Ortiz, the medical coordinator in Yemen forDoctors Without Borders, said in a statement last May, shortly after the coalition announced plans to bomb extensively throughout Sadah. “The bombing of civilians targets, with or without warning, is a serious violation of international humanitarian law. It is even more serious to target a whole province.”
The United States has acknowledged that it provides some intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. As Saudi Arabia’s chief arms supplier, the United States has also supplied the coalition’s air force with the overwhelming majority of rockets and bombs used in the campaign, according to Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera, who led a mission this summer that documented 13 coalition airstrikes that killed about 100 people, including 59 children.
But she said it is impossible to establish whether the United States is directly complicit because the military operation — as well as the extent of cooperation — is shrouded in secrecy. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty and other human rights groups have pressed for an independent investigation into crimes by both sides in the conflict.
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has sought to distance itself from the coalition’s excesses, insisting that the United States played no role in deciding which targets to hit in Yemen. Behind the scenes, the United States has been urging the Saudis to wrap it up and make peace and to minimize the extent of suffering. U.S. and U.N. officials say that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are keen to begin talks with the Houthis. But they say Hadi has resisted.
Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert and head of the international affairs department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, said the United States has serious misgivings about the prospects of a Saudi military victory in Yemen. But he said the United States will likely continue providing military support as “a signal that they are not shifting the strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia despite our outreach to Iran.
- “I guess I’m a cynic and I think this can go on for some time,” he added. Yemen’s conflict has been “far from the headlines, and Syria is taking up all the media bandwidth.”
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