Both Saudi Arabia and the United States Are Probably Guilty of War Crimes in Yemen
On August 9 of last year, warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition bombed a school bus near a market in the northern Yemeni town of Dahyan, killing 54 people, 44 of them children. After interviewing more than a dozen witnesses and survivors, Human Rights Watch called the attack an “apparent war crime” because “there was no evident military target in the market at the time.” The munition used by the Saudis was supplied by the United States—a 500-pound laser-guided bomb made by Lockheed Martin.
As it has done repeatedly when its air strikes kill civilians, the Saudi coalition at first insisted that it had attacked a legitimate military target. On August 11, Saudi Arabia’s Mission to the United Nations claimed that the strike had “targeted Houthi leaders who were responsible for recruiting and training young children, and then sending them to battlefields.” It did not provide evidence to support these claims. Finally, after growing international condemnation, on September 1, the Saudis acknowledged that the attack was unjustified and vowed to “hold those who committed mistakes” accountable.
In an interview with Axios in November, President Donald Trump said the Saudis and their allies did not know how to use American weapons properly. Asked if he was bothered that the Saudis had blown up a school bus with a US-made bomb, Trump responded: “Bother’s not strong enough. That was basically people that didn’t know how to use the weapon, which is horrible.” He called the bus attack a “horror show” and promised to take up the matter with Saudi leaders. “I’ll be talking about a lot of things with the Saudis,” Trump added, “but certainly I wouldn’t be having people that don’t know how to use the weapons shooting at buses with children.”
Trump’s muddled answer reflected a narrative that has been gaining traction for years among US officials and in sectors of the Western media: that the Saudis and their allies in the Yemen war, especially the United Arab Emirates, are killing civilians and destroying infrastructure by mistake. But this is not true. The Saudi coalition has targeted civilians and the country’s infrastructure by design since it intervened in Yemen’s civil war in March 2015. It’s not that the Saudis and their allies don’t know how to use American-made weapons or need help in choosing targets—they’re using them as intended. And American officials have known this for years.
On April 4, the House voted to end US military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, finally approving a bill to restrain presidential war powers that has taken years to pass both chambers of Congress. The measure, which invoked the 1973 War Powers Act and argued that Congress never authorized support for the Saudi coalition, underscored growing anger over American involvement in a war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The vote was also a rebuke to Trump for doubling down on his support for Saudi Arabia’s ruthless crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, after Saudi agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. On April 16, Trump vetoed the bill, and supporters in Congress did not have enough votes to override that veto.
One of the most persistent false arguments advanced by Pentagon and Trump administration officials against the Congressional bill is that American support is necessary to keep the Saudi coalition from killing even more civilians. On April 29, Michael Mulroy, deputy assistant defense secretary for the Middle East, told a Washington think tank that US support is now limited to “side-by-side coaching to help mitigate civilian casualties.” He argued that if Congress was to override Trump’s veto of the War Powers Act resolution, this US assistance would end. “If that happens, that’s obviously not helping the situation,” Mulroy said at the Center for a New American Security.
The Trump administration continues to insist that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have tried to reduce civilian deaths and to enable humanitarian aid deliveries in Yemen, despite contradictory evidence documented by the United Nations, human rights groups, and, most recently, former US officials who served in President Barack Obama’s administration. In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally assured Congress that the two US allies were trying to reduce civilian deaths. Congress required the administration to make this certification as a condition for the Pentagon to continue providing military assistance. But Pompeo’s claim contradicted most other independent reviews of the war, including a report issued in August by a group of UN experts. The report found both the Saudi-led coalition and rebel Houthi militia responsible for likely war crimes, but it blamed the Saudis and their allies for killing far more civilians. “Coalition air strikes have caused most of the documented civilian casualties,” the report said. “In the past three years, such air strikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats, and even medical facilities.”
Saudi leaders and their allies have ignored American entreaties to minimize civilian casualties since the war’s early days. And, according to recent testimony in Congress by two members of the Obama administration, US officials recognized as early as 2016 that top Saudi and UAE leaders were not interested in reducing civilian casualties. In little-noticed testimony to the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism in early March, the two former State Department officials explained how deeply involved the United States has been in helping the Saudis choose their targets in Yemen, creating “no-strike” lists, and sending trainers to help avoid civilian casualties. The officials were Dafna Rand, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, who is now a vice president at Mercy Corps; and Jeremy Konyndyk, former director of the USAID Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance.
But Rand testified that soon after the Saudis launched the war in 2015, and civilian casualties started to mount, the State Department sent a trainer to Riyadh to work with Saudi Defense Ministry officials. She said the trainer had worked with the US military’s Central Command to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and US officials had thought the Saudis could use similar techniques to reduce casualties in Yemen. “We approached this very technically behind closed doors, very quietly, sent our trainer in,” Rand said, adding that after a cease-fire in 2016, US officials were hopeful that their efforts were paying off. But once the cease-fire collapsed in August 2016, the Saudi coalition attacked a series of civilian targets that caused mass casualties. At that point, Rand said, “it gave us pause to recalibrate the strategy, and wonder what had happened to our training.” The State Department continued to quietly send the trainer to Riyadh.
But Rand and other officials soon realized that top Saudi leaders were not interested in limiting civilian casualties, despite American appeals. She said Saudi leaders only cared if the president—first Obama and later Trump—applied pressure or threatened to suspend weapons sales. Rand did not mention Mohammed bin Salman, who was then the deputy crown prince and Saudi defense minister and a major architect of the Yemen war. “We came to the conclusion by late 2016 that although there were very many well-meaning and professional generals in the Saudi Ministry of Defense, there was a lack of political will at the top senior levels to reduce the number of civilian casualties,” she said.
Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey who had served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor during the Obama administration, asked Rand if the problem was “imprecise targeting, or were they targeting the wrong things?”
Rand responded: “It was very clear that precision was not the issue, and that guiding was not the issue. It was the type of target selection that became the clear issue, and even when the US government told them which targets not to hit, we saw instances where the coalition was targeting the wrong thing.”
“So they deliberately struck targets like water treatment facilities and food distribution centers that were on a no-strike list that was handed to them?” Malinowski asked at the sparsely attended hearing.
Konyndyk, who in his role at USAID helped compile a no-strike list of civilian targets, responded that US officials initially assumed that the Saudis and their allies would know not to attack schools and hospitals, which are visible from the air. The initial list of humanitarian sites included the offices of nongovernmental organizations and warehouses—“things that if you looked at them from the air, you would not be aware it’s a humanitarian facility.” American officials soon realized that “the Saudis tended to treat anything not on the no-strike list that we gave them as fair game, so then we expanded the list,” Konyndyk said. “And we began naming categories of sites, including specific road routes that were critical to the humanitarian effort.”
But the Saudis and their allies attacked sites that were on various no-strike lists, which has grown to include thousands of locations compiled by the UN and humanitarian groups. In August 2016, for example, the Saudi coalition bombed the main bridge on the 155-mile road from Hodeidah port, along the Red Sea coast, to the capital, Sanaa. That road was the main artery for humanitarian groups to bring aid into Yemen, especially territory controlled by the Houthi militia. “They struck that [bridge] despite us having specifically told them through that process not to,” Konyndyk said.
Radhya Almutawakel, co-founder and leader of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, a Yemen-based group, told the House subcommittee that the Saudis and their allies simply don’t care about protecting Yemini civilians. “It’s not a matter of training. It’s a matter of accountability. They don’t care,” she said. “If they cared, they can make it much better, at least not to embarrass their allies.”
According to the Yemen Data Project, Saudi and UAE warplanes have conducted more than 19,500 air strikes on Yemen since the war began, an average of nearly 13 attacks per day. (About a third of these attacks are on military targets, while the rest are classified as nonmilitary targets or “unknown.”) The coalition has bombed schools, hospitals, markets, mosques, farms, factories, roads and bridges, power plants, water-treatment facilities, even a potato-chip factory.
Rand and Konyndyk did not accuse the coalition of war crimes, but international humanitarian law forbids the intentional targeting of civilians during war. Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California and a former military lawyer who has been one of the most vocal critics in Congress of the US role in Yemen, was more blunt at the subcommittee hearing: Saudi Arabia and the UAE “are deliberately targeting civilians,” he said. “I think these are war crimes.”
Despite thousands of air strikes over the past four years, the Saudi-led alliance has failed to dislodge the Houthis from Yemen’s capital. That stalemate has embarrassed the war’s two main architects: the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has overseen the Yemen campaign from its start, and his mentor, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and the UAE’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed. And as the war dragged on, the two leaders have become more brutal, with little restraint from the United States or other Western allies.
Beyond the intentional bombing of civilians in violation of international law, the Saudi and Emirati militaries have also destroyed civilian infrastructure and imposed air and naval blockades that have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Yemenis from starvation and preventable diseases like cholera. In their report last August, a group of independent UN experts noted that before the Saudi-led war, Yemen imported nearly 90 percent of its food, fuel, and medical supplies. The report concluded that the Saudi-UAE blockades “have had widespread and devastating effects on the civilian population.”
The war triggered a humanitarian catastrophe, which has been partly obscured because the UN stopped updating civilian deaths in January 2017, when the toll reached 10,000. Many news reports still rely on that outdated figure, even though the actual death toll is far higher. An independent estimate by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project has recorded more than 70,000 fatalities between January 2016 and April 2019. (That figure includes both civilian and military casualties, but it does not cover the first seven months of the war, when the death toll was highest.) And even that estimate fails to capture the full scope of human suffering in Yemen.
In November, the aid agency Save the Children released an analysis estimating that 85,000 children have likely died of hunger since Saudi Arabia and its allies began their bombing campaign. “For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are starving to death and it’s entirely preventable,” Tamer Kirolos, the group’s country director, said in the report. “Children who die in this way suffer immensely as their vital organ functions slow down and eventually stop.”
Last month, the United Nations Development Programme issued a report, primarily produced by researchers at the University of Denver, with a dramatically higher estimate: It warned that the death toll in Yemen could rise to 233,000 by the end of 2019. That projected count includes 102,000 deaths from combat and 131,000 indirect deaths, due to the lack of food, health crises like the cholera epidemic, and damage to Yemen’s infrastructure. The conflict has turned into a “war on children,” with one Yemeni child dying every 12 minutes; the report estimates that 140,000 of those killed by the end of 2019 would be children under the age of 5.
The Saudi-UAE alliance is also using starvation as a weapon of war by deliberately targeting the infrastructure of Yemen’s food production and distribution, including the agricultural sector and fishing industry. As a result, the war has also left more than 22 million people—75 percent of Yemen’s population—in need of humanitarian aid, and 1.4 million infected with cholera. The UN estimates that 8.4 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation and need assistance to stay alive.
The destruction of Yemen’s food supply is another war crime, which has been documented by human-rights groups that have investigated Saudi and UAE conduct in the war, including a report issued in October by Tufts University and the World Peace Foundation. The report, written by Martha Mundy, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, shows that the Saudi coalition has deliberately targeted food supplies and distribution systems in an attempt to starve the Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen into submission. Mundy found that after August 2015, when it became clear to the Saudi coalition that it would not achieve a quick military victory—the kind of triumph promised by bin Salman and bin Zayed—“there appears a shift from military and governmental to civilian and economic targets, including water and transport infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads and transport, schools, cultural monuments, clinics and hospitals, and houses, fields, and flocks.”
The report makes clear that the coalition is targeting food supplies by destroying agricultural land and fishing vessels—a war crime under international humanitarian law. For example, the report notes that, from the start of the war through December 2017, the coalition destroyed at least 220 fishing boats along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, killed 146 fishermen, and reduced fish catches by at least half from pre-war levels.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not the only states potentially implicated in war crimes. By the summer of 2015, some US officials were worried that American support to the Saudis—including weapons sales, intelligence support, assistance in identifying targets, and the mid-air refueling of Saudi and allied warplanes—would make the United States a co-belligerent in the war under international law. That means US personnel could be implicated in war crimes and, in theory, could be exposed to international prosecution. By late 2015, Reuters reported, Obama administration officials had debated for months whether to proceed with arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which was becoming Washington’s largest weapons customer. American officials were particularly worried about a 2012 ruling from an international tribunal that convicted Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president, for “aiding and abetting” war crimes committed by rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in the 1990s. The tribunal ruled that an individual could be guilty of “aiding and abetting” if he provided “practical assistance, encouragement, or moral support which had a substantial effect on the perpetration of a crime.” Yet, despite those concerns, in November 2015, State Department officials approved the sale of nearly $1.3 billion in bombs and missiles to replenish Saudi munitions dropped in Yemen.
In October 2016, the Saudi coalition bombed a community hall in Sanaa, where mourners had gathered for a funeral, killing at least 140 people and wounding hundreds—the deadliest attack of the war. As international condemnation mounted, the Obama administration promised to review its military support for Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen. Human Rights Watch found that the Saudi coalition used an American-made 500-pound laser-guided bomb in the attack, which it called “an apparent war crime.”In a follow-up letter, the group urged Obama to halt all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and warned, “The repeated use of US-manufactured munitions in unlawful attacks in Yemen could make the US complicit for future transfers of arms to Saudi forces.”
Representative Ted Lieu, the former military lawyer who has been a leading critic in Congress of American involvement in Yemen, wrote to then–Secretary of State John Kerry warning of potential US complicity in war crimes. “The Charles Taylor case precedent puts US officials at risk of being implicated in aiding and abetting war crimes in Yemen,” Lieu wrote in October 2016. “In addition, under both international law and U.S. law, American officials can be prosecuted for conspiring to commit war crimes.”
Despite these warnings, Obama essentially gave the Saudis a slap on the wrist: He suspended the sale of about $350 million in munitions and directed the Pentagon to stop sharing some intelligence. Once Trump took office in 2017, he reversed Obama’s decision on the weapons sale and escalated US military involvement in Yemen. And the Trump administration dismissed worries about US exposure to war crimes. Instead, Trump and some of his top administration officials, especially Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, accepted the Saudi and Emirati line that Yemen is an extension of the campaign to contain Iran’s regional influence. (While the Saudis were quick to label the Shiite Houthis as agents of Iran, the group did not receive significant help from Tehran before the Saudi intervention.)
As criticism of Saudi Arabia increased in Congress after Saudi agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi last October, the Trump administration took a step to appease members of Congress critical of the US role in Yemen. In November, the administration announced it was ending one element of US military assistance: the refueling of Saudi and UAE warplanes bombing Yemen. But that’s not enough to end the war. In addition to refueling warplanes and providing intelligence assistance, Washington has rushed billions of dollars’ worth of missiles, bombs, and spare parts to help the Saudi and UAE militaries continue their bombing campaign. But neither the Obama nor Trump administrations put enough pressure on the Saudis or Emiratis to negotiate a political settlement with the Houthis to end the war.
Two days after Trump announced his decision to end the mid-air refueling, a group of 30 former senior officials in the Obama administration—including former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former CIA Director John Brennan—released a letter acknowledging some responsibility for initiating American support for the Saudi coalition. “We did not intend US support to the coalition to become a blank check. But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened,” the former officials wrote, adding: “However, rather than learning from that failure, the Trump administration has doubled down on support for the Saudi leadership’s prosecution of the war, while removing restrictions we had put in place.… It is past time for America’s role in this disastrous war in Yemen to end.”
The former Obama administration officials exaggerated how many constraints they had put on the Saudis and avoided responsibility for not acting far more forcefully sooner. The Obama administration could have ended weapons sales and other military assistance long before the tentative steps it took in late 2016. But these former officials are right about one thing: Trump has given Saudi Arabia and the UAE an even bigger blank check in Yemen—and he’s made the United States more deeply complicit in war crimes.