U.S. Weapons, Saudi Airstrikes, Yemeni Deaths: What a U.N. Report on War Crimes in Yemen Means for U.S.-Saudi Weapon Sales

October 1, 2019
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A Yemeni child stands in the wreckage of a bus that was hit by a Saudi-led coalition air strike on the Dahyan market in August while carrying school children on September 4, 2018. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

The sun had already crested the mountains when about 50 schoolchildren gathered around a bus in Dahyan, a town nestled in a dusty valley near the Yemen’s northeastern border with Saudi Arabia. It was Aug. 9, 2018, and a 7-year-old boy clambered into the bus with his classmates. He had insisted on wearing his Eid clothing for the field trip, his first, to a nearby water dam. His father reluctantly agreed to let him go.

That same morning —14 miles southeast of Dahyan, at a hospital in Sa’dah — International Committee of the Red Cross nurse Marta Rivas Blanco prepared for her shift. The 38-year-old had almost stayed at the office that morning to catch up on paperwork. Then her phone rang. On the line, a field officer warned of an incoming wave of patients. An airstrike had hit a school bus at a busy market in Dahyan.

The children arrived at the hospital in cars and ambulances. Some came alone, others were carried by sobbing relatives, Blanco said. The hospital ran low on medical supplies within hours.

“That day we were all the day in the hospital. The day after, we went again,” Blanco wrote in an email to FRONTLINE. “You feel that you try your best, but sometimes it is not enough.”

More than 40 people died in the attack, including at least 11 children between the ages of 10 and 15. Others survived with severe wounds, including the 7-year-old boy from Dahyan. Shrapnel embedded near his eye, in his leg and foot, which was badly broken. At home, his father stood in front of the television, horrified, and watched a broadcast of the airstrike’s aftermath.

“Half bodies and body parts were scattered,” he recounted a year later during a recorded interview with aid organization Save the Children. (The organization withheld names to protect the families.) “Just prior to that tragedy, he asked me to buy him a bicycle, but I told him, ‘Son, it’s too dangerous outside, and if you got hit by a motorcycle or a car and something happened to you, I would never be able to live with myself.”

The airstrike is one of nearly a dozen attacks by a Saudi-led coalition included in a recent U.N. report. A team of investigators appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council found that the airstrike violated international humanitarian law and details numerous similar incidents in Yemen that may amount to war crimes.

And for the first time, the experts named and implicated “third states,” including the United States, France and the United Kingdom, for selling weapons used in the conflict.

“We have a war that’s going on. It’s causing immense suffering and frankly most of that suffering is caused by arms,” said Charles Garraway, one of the experts behind the report and a former military lawyer. “The tragedy in Yemen is so awful at the moment that somehow one has got to reach some form of settlement to stop the war.”

With the support of the U.N. Human Rights Council, the group of experts wants to continue its investigation and publish additional reports, placing further pressure on countries to stop supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Before the report was released, President Donald Trump seemed determined to maintain the flow of U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia and its allies — despite bipartisan protests in Congress. Robert Jordan, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003, said the report’s findings likely won’t sway the Trump administration, which “doesn’t seem to mind being an outlier.”

“The clear message being sent by this administration is that the Saudis can pretty well act with impunity in Yemen,” Jordan said. “I’m not saying we [should] refuse to sell weapons to the Saudis forever, but if we say we don’t want these weapons used in a war in Yemen, the Saudis would have difficult times, I think, replacing those weapons systems in any short period of time.”

The Saudi-led coalition has refuted the experts’ findings. In a statement published Sept. 5 through the Saudi Press Agency, coalition spokesperson Col. Turki bin Saleh Al-Malki said the three experts were misled by their sources in Yemen. He emphasized the coalition is committed to following international humanitarian and human rights law.

“If that’s what they’re trying to do, it ain’t working,” Garraway said, pointing to the deadly air campaign in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is America’s biggest arms buyer, with more than $129 billion in active foreign military sales with the United States as of May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. There will likely be a significant increase in the number of deals under a 10-year, $110 billion agreement to modernize Saudi Armed Forces, which was struck in 2017.

In the aftermath of a Sept. 14 drone attack on a Saudi oil processing plant, Trump emphasized the financial benefit of the U.S.’s relationship with the kingdom.

“They’ve been a great ally,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “They spend $400 billion in our country over the last number of years. Four hundred billion dollars. That’s a million and a half jobs. And they’re not ones that, unlike some countries, where they want terms; they want terms and conditions. They want to say, ‘Can we borrow the money at zero percent for the next 400 years?’ No. No. Saudi Arabia pays cash.”

Congress, however, is wary of the relationship. A flurry of legislation has been drafted to slow or even pause U.S.-Saudi arms deals, largely because of the kingdom’s human rights record and controversial air campaign in Yemen. Earlier this year, the Trump administration tried to ram through a $8.1 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. The House and Senate voted to block the sale, a decision Trump then vetoed. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has since introduced the Saudi Arabia False Emergencies Act, a bill to protect congressional oversight of major sales by amending the Arms Export Control Act.

 Another proposed law introduced in February, the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2019, would suspend certain arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including bombs, rockets, aircraft and even ammunition.

“Since 2015, we have seen Saudi Arabia utilize American-made weapons in what started as a campaign to restore the legitimate Yemeni government but has degenerated into one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in the world and a wholly destabilizing campaign,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who sponsored the bill, wrote in a statement to FRONTLINE.

“Our message is that we will continue to support legitimate security needs, but that there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen, and that our efforts should be to support immediate relief for some of the most vulnerable and suffering, and that a political path forward is the only way to ensure lasting stability and for all Yemenis to live in security and dignity.”

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who co-sponsored the bill, visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman in early September. During a meeting in Jeddah with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the minister of defense, Young said he pressed the de facto Saudi leader on coalition airstrikes and urged him to keep a promise to contribute $750 million to a U.N. humanitarian appeal for Yemen. He also brought up Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist murdered last October at a Saudi embassy in Turkey.

Young said he wanted the crown prince to understand why members of Congress are trying to block weapons sales from the United States to Saudi Arabia, despite President Trump’s endorsement of the deals. He cited Khashoggi’s death, as well as the violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen described in the recent U.N. report. During the meeting, Prince Mohammed expressed desire to improve his relationship with the legislative branch, Young said.

“I emphasized to the crown prince that it was essential that he understand that the relationship between the United States of America and our elected representatives on the one hand, and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the other, is tenuous and fragile,” Young said.

Bilaal Saab, a political-military analyst with the Middle East Institute in D.C., said that if America cuts off its supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia, it’s likely the kingdom will turn to other countries. Saab, a former senior advisor for security cooperation at the Pentagon, argues the conversation should instead focus on how to make U.S. arms deals count by using sales for better leverage. Though there are conditions on how U.S. weapons can be used by buyers, these are notoriously difficult to track or enforce — especially with opaque regimes.

“We all know very well that we have little control over these things,” Saab said. “You can imagine when the Saudis come in — open the door with their own cash — and that we’re going to be able somehow tell them how to use it and how to maintain it and all that sort of stuff? That’s just not going to happen.

“With us having access to the Saudis, even though they’re still performing poorly with their targeting campaign, it’s much better than having no access to the Saudis at all and not giving them any weapons.”

The United Kingdom, which was also named in the U.N. report, faces similar questions about how to move forward with the Saudis. In June, the UK Court of Appeal ruled the arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful because the British government did not consider whether the weapons would be used to violate international humanitarian law. The ruling does not stop the arms sales but forces the government to reconsider the matter. France, meanwhile, has not yet taken steps against transactions with Saudi Arabia. French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian did express concern about the conflict in Yemen. In an interview Sept. 20 with French broadcaster CNews, he said there were “huge risks of conflict” in the Middle East and warned “the smallest spark could cause a conflagration.”

Meanwhile, Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Nearly 80 percent of the population — some 24 million people — now need help to survive, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Top donors to the internationally funded humanitarian response plan include the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom. Yet, as of August, the plan has received less than half of the $4.2 billion required to provide assistance such as food, shelter and health care.

Yemen’s civil war is rooted in nearly a decade of political unrest that escalated into military conflict in 2014, when the anti-government, Iran-backed Houthi movement took over the country’s capital, Sana’a. Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, where he appealed to the international community for help. Saudi Arabia responded by assembling a coalition of countries from the Middle East and Africa, notably the United Arab Emirates, to launch a military offensive against the Houthis and their allies. The years since have plunged Yemen ever deeper into crisis, with a staggering number of civilian deaths. One database, compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, has recorded nearly 99,000 fatalities since 2015. The organization receives funding from international and government sources including the U.S. Department of State. The data doesn’t include deaths from starvation or disease, two worsening threats for Yemeni people. The country is wracked by cholera and the U.N. experts in their recent report expressed “deep concerns that starvation may have been used as a method of warfare.”

Martin Griffiths, special envoy of the U.N. Secretary-General for Yemen, has repeatedly told the U.N. Security Council that “Yemen cannot wait,” and the international community must step up. Though he has managed to engage the warring parties in talks, notably negotiating a cease-fire for the beleaguered port city of Hudaydah last year, Griffiths says the crisis is unsustainable. In a Sept. 16 briefing to the open session of the U.N. Security Council, he again stressed the urgency of the situation and the importance of ending the war without further conflict. “There is simply no argument, no choice, no better use of our energy now than that endeavor,” Griffiths told the council. “We see therefore the war not merely continuing to wreck the lives and livelihoods of men and women in Yemen. We also see it threatening to metastasize into something that threatens the existence of Yemen itself.”

Learn more about Saudi Arabia, the war in Yemen and America’s role in the FRONTLINE season premiere, The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Veteran correspondent Martin Smith delves into the secretive kingdom to uncover fresh details of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive rise to power.

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