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U.S.-backed coalition in Yemen accused of ‘unlawful’ conduct

In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015, with U.S. support. Today, carnage from the conflict is worsening, and both the Houthis and the UN blame the coalition for dozens of civilian casualties. Nick Schifrin talks with Human Rights Watch's Kristine Beckerle, one of the lead authors of a new report that criticizes the coalition's conduct as "unlawful."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the ongoing civil war in Yemen is leaving more and more civilians dead, Nick Schifrin looks at the United States' role in the conflict.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Since early 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen.

    Yesterday, the Houthis and the U.N. blamed the coalition for an attack in Yemen's west that reportedly killed 30 people, including women and many children.

    The coalition disputes that claim.

    Earlier this month, the U.N. says a coalition airstrike hit a school bus, killing at least 51 people, including 40 children.

    The U.S. provides support to the coalition. And now some in Congress are calling for the Pentagon and White House to better describe that support. Some on Capitol Hill want the U.S. to cease its involvement altogether.

    For more on this, we're joined from Beirut by Kristine Beckerle, the Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, and the author of a report released today, "Hiding Behind the Coalition – Failure to Credibly Investigate and Provide Redress for Unlawful Attacks in Yemen."

    Kristine Beckerle, thank you very much for joining us.

    The U.S. says it only provides midair refueling and does not provide any targeting. Is that what you understand?

  • Kristine Beckerle:

    So, first of all, thank you for having me.

    And I think the big issue on the U.S.' side is similar to what we're pointing out in the new report, which is, basically, there's been an incredible dearth of transparency, or, to put it more bluntly, the U.S. has been quite tight-lipped about what support they're actually providing to the coalition.

    So, what we do know is, they are providing this midair refueling, but the U.S. won't tell us which aircraft, for example, it refueled. Did it refuel the coalition aircraft that bombed a market, a home, a hospital, a wedding?

    And we know that they're providing munitions to the side of the coalition that have repeatedly landed and shown up at the site of apparently unlawful attacks.

    Now, the reason this is all very, very concerning is that it raises questions regarding the U.S.' own complicity in some of these unlawful attacks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A State Department official I was speaking to earlier said that they have been pressing coalition partners at the highest levels to mitigate the conflict's impact on civilian — are you seeing evidence of that? And are you seeing any results from that pressure?

  • Kristine Beckerle:

    So there's been this narrative amongst coalition allies — and I think probably — amongst coalition states — that the coalition is — quote — "serious" about improving, working to minimize civilian casualties.

    But given how little transparency there is about how the coalition actually operates, it's very difficult for independent observers to basically check them on that claim.

    But there's two things I would point to, is that since the coalition has made these promises to minimize civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch Amnesty, the U.N., other Yemeni rights groups have repeatedly documented apparently unlawful coalition attacks in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

    And, further, one of the things that coalition allies like the U.S. tend to point to is the fact that, well, the coalition is investigating, so they must be serious about working to minimize civilian casualties.

    What our report does is show that those investigations are by no means a sufficient assurance to coalition allies continuing to ship weapons to Saudi Arabia, because those investigations themselves raise serious red flags about the way in which one coalition body is thinking about international law and legal obligations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. officials have been trying to get the Saudi air force, the Saudi military to be better at targeting and be better at waging this war.

    And there's an investigative body that is part of that — attempts to improve what the Saudis are doing. Do you see any evidence that investigative body is actually doing its work correctly?

  • Kristine Beckerle:

    I think, to be very blunt, is that, at this point, the investigative body is serving more to shield coalition states from any real form of accountability than to credibly investigate unlawful attacks, hold anybody responsible or provide civilian victims redress.

    And the reason I say that is, Human Rights Watch analyzed the work of that coalition body over the last two years. They basically cleared the coalition of legal fault in the vast majority of attacks investigated.

    Their findings showed some pretty egregious, fundamental failings in terms of the ways in which they were thinking about both the facts on the ground and the laws that applied.

    And I think, perhaps even more condemnatory, is that this investigative body that the U.S. continuously points to, say, for example, after the coalition once again bombs and kills kids that didn't need to die, like the bus in Saada that was hit recently, the U.S. says, well, coalition, you should investigate.

    But, listen, two years on, that coalition body has not credibly investigated. So, the question I really think is, how many more children in Yemen basically need to die, how many more buses need to be bombed, weddings bombed, before the U.S. realizes that calling on the coalition to investigate itself is by no means an adequate response to what's going on in Yemen?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kristine Beckerle of Human Rights Watch joining us from Beirut, thank you very much.

  • Kristine Beckerle:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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