Is U.S. Vulnerable to War Crimes Charge for Supporting Saudi Bombing of Innocents in Yemen?

Two days ago, White House National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price released a statement claiming that the Obama administration is “deeply disturbed” by reports that a recent Saudi coalition airstrike on a funeral procession in Yemen killed at least 140 people. “U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check,” he proclaimed.


Yet, internal government documents exposed Monday by Reuters journalists Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay cast doubt on such claims, revealing that the Obama administration has long known that the 18-month military campaign is killings thousands of civilians in Yemen and could implicate the United States in war crimes.

“The Obama administration went ahead with a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year despite warnings from some officials that the United States could be implicated in war crimes for supporting a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians,” write Strobel and Landay. The journalists cite “the accounts of current and former officials, as well as government documents from mid-May 2015 to February 2016 that were obtained by Reuters through a Freedom of Information Act Request (see here, here, here and here).

Notably, the Reuters report reveals that “State Department officials also were privately skeptical of the Saudi military's ability to target Houthi militants without killing civilians and destroying ‘critical infrastructure’ needed for Yemen to recover." One particularly damning passage reads:

State Department lawyers "had their hair on fire" as reports of civilian casualties in Yemen multiplied in 2015, and prominent human rights groups charged that Washington could be complicit in war crimes, one U.S. official said. That official and the others requested anonymity.

During an October 2015 meeting with private human rights groups, a State Department specialist on protecting civilians in conflict acknowledged Saudi strikes were going awry.

"The strikes are not intentionally indiscriminate but rather result from a lack of Saudi experience with dropping munitions and firing missiles," the specialist said, according to a department account of the meeting.

According to Reuters, Obama administration lawyers were ultimately undecided about whether the role of the U.S. government as a “co-belligerent” would put it at risk of war crimes charges. Strobel and Landay note that “one of the emails made a specific reference to a 2013 ruling from the war crimes trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor that significantly widened the international legal definition of aiding and abetting such crimes.”

Human rights rights organizations say there is a compelling case for war crimes charges to be filed against the United States, which is one of at least a dozen countries participating in or backing the coalition, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Britain.

Amnesty International says it has documented “more than 30 air strikes across six different governorates (Sana’a, Sa’da, Hajjah, Hodeidah, Ta’iz and Lahj) by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that appear to have violated international humanitarian law (the rules that apply during a conflict which are sometimes known as the “laws of war”), resulting in 366 civilian deaths (more than half of whom were women and children) and 272 civilian injuries. These have included attacks that appear to have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects such as hospitals, schools, markets and mosques, which may amount to war crimes.”

Since March 2015, Washington approved more than $22.2 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, not all of which has arrived. The Obama administration has deployed troops, assisted the coalition in identifying bomb targets and conducting intelligence and sent warships to enforce the naval blockade that has choked off critical imports, contributing to a crisis that has left at least 21 million people in desperate need of food.  

Throughout the campaign, coalition bombs have consistently struck civilians, including factories, weddings and even a center for the blind. The Saudi-led coalition is responsible for the majority of the thousands of civilians killed and wounded.

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