U.S. Tries to Evade Responsibility for Saudi War It Has Been Backing for 15 Months
The renewed push from leading humanitarian organizations to suspend Saudi Arabia from the United Nations Human Rights Council has shined a fresh light on the Gulf state’s war atrocities in Yemen, from the bombing of civilian neighborhoods, schools, weddings and aid warehouses to a naval blockade that has pushed the country to the brink of famine.
While this scrutiny is well-deserved, Saudi Arabia is not the only state waging the assault, with at least a dozen countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United States and Britain) participating in or backing the military coalition.
Since the onslaught began on March 26, 2015, the United States has only escalated its involvement. First the Obama administration shipped weapons, identified bomb targets and sent its warships to assist the naval blockade. In May the U.S. government announced troop deployments but did not reveal how many or for what length of time.
Yet, now that Saudi Arabia is in the hot seat, U.S. State Department officials appear to be playing down the American role. At a press briefing on June 29, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner was asked by an unnamed reporter whether he has a position on the “move afoot by some human rights groups to get the United Nations to drop Saudi Arabia from the U.N. Human Rights Council” and whether he can comment on “potential U.S. complicity for targeting information.”
As we’ve said repeatedly before, we remain concerned about the effects of the conflict in Yemen on the civilians there, and especially on children. And we have worked long and hard to get a peace process up and running, and we continue to urge all sides in the conflict to protect civilians and comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. Specifically, because we only have observer status on the Human Rights Council, I’d refer you to the U.N. for more details. I mean, we don’t have a vote.
With regard to your second question about complicity, I’m not going to speak to that other than that we work very closely, as I said, to urge all sides to show respect for civilians and to certainly not target civilians, but indeed to protect civilians and comply with international humanitarian law.
But here is the problem: concerns about the killing of civilians on “all sides” necessarily implicate the United States, since American forces are fighting on the Saudi side. One only has to look at prior state department declarations of unwavering support for the Saudi-led coalition to confirm this fact.
Speaking at the Royal Air Base in Riyadh in January, Secretary of State John Kerry declared, “In Yemen, we face the Houthi insurgency and the ongoing threat that is posed by Al-Qaeda, threats to the territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” He continued: “We have made it clear that we stand with our friends in Saudi Arabia.”
Toner’s latest condemnation of all sides targeting children came just weeks after he refused to rebuke U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for removing the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen from a "list of shame" of armed forces that violate the rights of children after the Gulf monarchy threatened to withdraw funding from U.N. programs in retaliation. Toner told a reporter on June 10, “Look, I’m not going to second-guess the UN’s decision and the secretary-general’s decision. It’s up to him to explain and defend his rationale for doing so.”
Perhaps the real U.S. position was revealed in January 2015, just before the ongoing war began, when Obama told CNN ahead of his third presidential visit to Saudi Arabia, “Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”
The special relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has led to anything but stability in the region. In Yemen alone, the military campaign has dramatically strengthened IS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, allowing the latter to seize nearly 400 miles of Yemen’s southern coast. As the U.S. sends troops ostensibly to fight AQAP, there are signs that the militant Islamist group has fought alongside elements of the U.S.-backed coalition.
Then there is the direct impact of the attacks. Since the Saudi-led military campaign began, 3,539 civilians have been killed and 6,268 wounded, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. The U.N. has repeatedly confirmed that the Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the majority of attacks on civilians.
“Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented 69 unlawful airstrikes by the coalition, some of which may amount to war crimes, killing at least 913 civilians and hitting homes, markets, hospitals, schools, civilian businesses, and mosques,” the groups declared in calling for the suspension of Saudi Arabia from the Human Rights Council. “The two organizations have also documented 19 attacks involving internationally banned cluster munitions, including in civilian areas.”
Now that Saudi Arabia has a public relations problem on its hands, the U.S. is seeking to evade responsibility for its atrocities. The Obama administration should have thought about that before it spent the last 15 months participating in a ruthless military assault, for which the people of Yemen have paid the greatest price.