Saudi Arabia Issues Empty Apology for Killing Civilians as It Continues Military Assault of Yemen


Ten months into Saudi Arabia’s relentless aerial assault and siege of neighboring Yemen, the powerful Gulf state was finally forced this week to admit that its coalition has killed and wounded civilians.

But as Riyadh officials issue limited apologies, there is no sign that Saudi Arabia plans to shift course from a war that has pushed Yemen to the edge of famine and taken nearly 3,000 civilian lives—nor that powerful backers like the United States intend to pull support.

In a recent statement posted on its Twitter page, Saudi Arabia's mission to the United Nations said it, “greatly regrets civilian casualties in Yemen.”

Along similar lines, Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, admitted in Riyadh on Sunday that the alliance was responsible for the October bombing of a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières hospital located in the Haydan district in Saada Province.

Saudi Arabia initially claimed it was not behind that air strike, which was just one of many bombings of hospitals and medical facilities across Yemen.

But human rights groups, Yemenis and international watchdog organizations say the coalition is intentionally targeting civilian infrastructure. A UN panel investigating the Saudi-led bombing sent a report last week to the global body’s Security Council, obtained by media outlets, which exposed “widespread and systemic” attacks against civilians.

The report states that the panel “documented that the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes.”

“The panel documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law,” the investigation continues.

In response to mounting criticism, Riyadh officials are attempting to assuage public concern by claiming they will pursue an investigation. Asseri announced it will launch an amorphous “high-level independent committee… to evaluate the events, identification and targeting mechanisms and developing them.”

But Saudi Arabia’s track record does not bode well for a meaningful self-probe. Aided by political cover from the U.S., the Gulf country has vigorously opposed independent investigations into war crimes committed on all sides of Yemen’s war, successfully defeating an October proposal from the Netherlands for a UN Human Rights Council investigation.

But it gets worse. In perhaps the darkest twist, Asseri said, “Experts from the United States ... [will] work on extensive reports and develop operating mechanisms, together with the British side.”

In other words, Saudi Arabia will receive help from the U.S. and U.K. in avoiding civilian deaths.

The U.S. has already provided direct support and arms for the Saudi-led bombing campaign. According to Central Command’s own reports, this participation has included intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting assistance. Such involvement has resulted in mounting charges that the U.S. is directly culpable in ongoing war crimes.

U.S. participation, in other words, has not brought reprieve for Yemenis who live under Saudi bombs.

Meanwhile, it is not clear what exactly the U.S. and U.K. are doing to protect civilians. When journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous asked Central Command (CENTCOM) last fall what steps the U.S. military will take to prevent harm to civilians, officials presented circular logic leading back to Saudi Arabia.

CENTCOM said that the Joint Combined Planning Cell, which advises the coalition, recommends that the Saudi military "investigate all incidents of civilian casualties allegedly caused by airstrikes and has asked that the coalition reveal the results of these investigations publicly.”

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