The U.S. Role in the War in Yemen
In March 2015, a 10-nation coalition led by Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen, and has been ever since. As the world’s attention has focused on the Syrian Civil War, which absolutely deserves our focus, the war in Yemen is often an afterthought in mainstream media coverage; that other conflict that the U.S. isn’t as involved in. In reality, while the U.S. is not directly involved in ground combat or the bombing itself, it has otherwise been as supportive as it gets, providing intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition and continuing to support the monarchy and other coalition members with massive arms sales. U.S. support continues despite frequent atrocities committed by the Saudi-led coalition, with this week’s bombing of yet another Doctors Without Borders hospital likely serving as the latest example, (“likely” because while Doctors Without Borders didn’t confirm which party was responsible, “planes were seen flying over the facility at the time,” suggesting the coalition is to blame). Meanwhile – thanks largely to the coalition bombing campaign and naval blockade – the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has become nothing short of catastrophic.
In April, the UN Security Council approved the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen with near unanimity (Russia abstained). While the stated purpose of the blockade was to enforce an arms embargo on Houthi rebels and their supporters, it has also had the effect of blocking food, fuel, and medical supplies from entering the country. Addressing the dire humanitarian situation, Trond Jensen, the head of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, said “part of it is generated by the conflict and part of it is generated by what we see as the de facto blockade — the implementation of the Security Council mandated arms embargo — which has effectively blocked many critical inputs from coming into the country.” In addition to supporting the UN Resolution to establish a blockade, the U.S. has sent warships to enforce it, risking confrontation with Iran at the height of delicate nuclear negotiations.
The blockade has been nothing short of catastrophic for Yemen. In a country of 25.9 million people that imports over 90 percent of its fuel and food, according to the World Food Program, roughly 14.4 million are food insecure, of which an estimated 7.6 are severely food insecure. In October 2015, only 2.8 million Yemenis received food assistance.
While the blockade has choked Yemen’s communities, preventing access to food, fuel, and medical supplies, the fighting has all but destroyed what’s left of Yemen’s healthcare system. In November, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for an end to the deliberate targeting of medical facilities in Yemen, citing the recent coalition bombings of hospitals in Taiz and Saada, but noting that there have been nearly 100 similar attacks since the conflict began in March. In Taiz, 14 of 20 hospitals have been forced to close due to damage from airstrikes and shelling, as well as lack of medical supplies and personnel. As a result, according to Kyung-Wha Kang, the UN’s Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, about 14 million Yemenis lack access to adequate healthcare. In his words, “Yemen’s health system is close to collapse.”
In addition to civilian casualties caused by the lack of access to food and healthcare, the number of civilian casualties caused by direct conflict is staggering. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), between March 26 and December 31, 2015, there were 8,119 civilian casualties recorded; 2,795 killed and 5,324 injured. In late September, the New York Times covered an OHCHR report claiming that almost two-thirds of civilian casualties in the conflict were caused by the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Zeid Raa’d al Hussein, the High Commissioner, reiterated that claim in December in a UN Security Council meeting.
I have observed with extreme concern the continuation of heavy shelling from the ground and the air in areas with high concentration of civilians as well as the perpetuation of the destruction of civilian infrastructure — in particular hospitals and schools — by all parties in the conflict … a disproportionate amount appeared to be the result of airstrikes carried out by Coalition forces.
The intentional targeting of civilian infrastructure is an appalling violation of human rights and international law, but the U.S. support role in Yemen continues.
Another tactic almost as dangerous to civilians as directly targeting them is the use of cluster bombs. In 2008, 116 countries signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions banning their use. The United States and Saudi Arabia are among the 80 countries that have not signed it. According to a Human Rights Watch report published in May 2015, “Credible evidence indicates that the Saudi-led coalition used banned cluster munitions supplied by the United States in airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen.” Despite widespread condemnation of the coalition’s use of cluster bombs, their use appears to be ongoing, with reports last week of cluster bombs dropped on Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a. The reason cluster munitions were banned by a majority of countries in the world is that they leave unexploded components strewn across target sites that innocent people often stumble upon later. Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped the U.S. from supplying Saudi Arabia with these deadly indiscriminate weapons.
Apparently U.S. policy in Yemen is immune to questions of morality and international law, not to mention thoughtful strategy. By continuing to support a coalition that targets civilians, the U.S. is fueling the growth of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and the growth of the Islamic State affiliate in Yemen. Both groups have successfully taken advantage of the instability and desperation in the country, as well as the recruitment tool handed to them by U.S. involvement in the war.
These Aren’t the War Crimes You’re Looking For
The war in Yemen gets less attention than it deserves in part because the administration downplays its significance, and the media largely follows suit. Announcing our new role in the war in March 2015, Bernadette Meehan, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, described the type of support we would provide in euphemistic military jargon: “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations.” By logistical support she meant enforcing the blockade of Yemen’s ports and fueling the Saudi-coalition’s planes. By intelligence support, she meant reviewing Saudi Arabia’s target lists and providing analysis on which targets to hit, analysis that’s apparently done little to avoid civilian casualties. And by military operations, she meant war.
Euphemisms aren’t the only tool the administration has deployed to draw attention away from our role in Yemen. In October 2015, the U.S. actually blocked a UN Security Council proposal – backed by Britain, France, Russia, and China – that would have called on all parties to the conflict “to respect and uphold international humanitarian law and human rights law.” Given the administration’s complicity in the many violations of humanitarian and human rights laws carried out during the war, its choice to block the resolution was not particularly surprising. Adding insult to injury is the shameless hypocrisy with which our government sanctions and isolates certain countries for human rights abuses while actively supporting even more egregious violations by our allies.
What Should Be Done
As with the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, a diplomatic solution is the only way to end the war in Yemen, and the executive branch of our government has an important role to play in making that happen. Multiple rounds of ceasefires have ended violently, negotiations have yet to produce a solution, and the lack of U.S. pressure on the parties involved to negotiate in good faith is partially responsible. Most recently, Saudi Arabia ended a ceasefire on January 2 after both sides reportedly violated the agreement on a regular basis.
In order to facilitate a diplomatic end to the war, the Obama administration should pressure the Saudi coalition to work seriously towards a diplomatic solution, as well as change its battle tactics to avoid civilian casualties. As part of that pressure, and given the ongoing human rights violations, the U.S. should end its so called “logistical and intelligence” support for the coalition efforts. While the U.S. supported last week’s UN resolution calling on the parties to the war to resume the ceasefire and negotiations, it can go farther by ending another type of support: the type that led defense contractors to cite the “benefits” of the War in Yemen.
For the duration of the war the U.S. should immediately suspend the sales and/or transfers of arms to the coalition. In October 2015, Amnesty International released a report calling on the backers of the coalition to immediately cease transfers of cluster munitions, general-purpose bombs, fighter jets, and helicopters to the coalition. Peace Action fully supports that request.
In order to encourage these outcomes, Congress has an important role in pressuring the administration to change its stance. Lawmakers who care about national security and America’s reputation around the world should demand that the administration adopt the aforementioned policy prescriptions. Lawmakers can write op-eds, make floor speeches, do TV interviews, write letters to the President, and author or co-sponsor resolutions calling on the administration to change its tack. Additionally, Congress is responsible for appropriating funds for humanitarian aid, and should prioritize a significant increase in aid for Yemen.
If you want to see lawmakers get serious about changing our approach to the War in Yemen, tell them so. Tell your representative to do something about the fact that tax dollars taken out of your paychecks are paying for the refueling operations for planes bombing civilian targets in Yemen’s towns and cities. Call your representative at the Congressional Switchboard at 844-735-1362 and tell them to speak out against U.S. support for the War in Yemen.