One Way to Stop the Unrelenting Deaths of Civilians in Yemen? An Arms Embargo on Saudi Arabia

The conflict in Yemen may not routinely make headlines around the globe. But it is grueling on, and increasingly becoming an ugly conflict in which the basic laws of war are routinely ignored. The worst offender is Saudi Arabia, which is leading a multi-national coalition that is ceaselessly pummeling Yemen with airstrikes that kill an inordinate number of civilians. Those all those bombs that are falling on schools, hospitals, homes and businesses are more likely than not made in the USA and Europe.

But now, there is a growing chorus to put the breaks on the Saudi-led assult on Yemen by denying them the weapons they need to carry out these strikes.

In a report this week, Human Rights Watch called on for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. They claim that the US, UK, and France risk being complicit in unlawful civilian deaths by continuing to sell weapons to a known violator that has done little to curtail its abuses.  The HRW report cites a UN investigation which found that “the coalition’s targeting of civilians through air strikes, either by bombing residential neighborhoods or by treating the entire cities of Sa‘dah and Maran in northern Yemen as military targets, is a grave violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. In certain cases, the Panel found such violations to have been conducted in a widespread and systematic manner.”

Human Rights Watch has documented 36 unlawful airstrikes that have killed at least 550 civilians, as well as 15 attacks involving internationally banned cluster munitions. So far, over 3,000 civilians have been killed and nearly 6,000 injured, mostly through airstrikes.

Saudi Arabia has lead an air campaign for nearly a year at the request of Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been driven out of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, by Houthi rebel groups. Since this civil war broke out, the United States, the United Kingdom and France have given financial and logistical support to the Saudis in their air campaign.

The conflict in Yemen is part of a broader regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Houthi rebels are perceived by Saudi Arabia to be supported by Iran. Meanwhile, the USA has been backing Saudi Arabia in Yemen, principally over the White House’s need to appease Saudi Arabia, over the recent nuclear deal with Iran.

Now a year into the conflict, the indiscriminate and deadly attacks on civilians have only increased in frequency and destruction. On March 15, 2016, Saudi fighter jets bombed a market in Mastaba, a city in a northern Yemeni province. About 120 civilians were killed, including more than 20 children, and more than 80 were wounded. This attack may perhaps be the deadliest so far in a war that has killed more than 6,000 civilians. Local residents say most of the bodies could hardly be identified and several were beyond recognition.

HRW arms

It isn’t only human rights groups that are speaking out against American complicity in what seems to be an unwarranted and barbaric war. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut has publicly called for an end to American military involvement in Yemen. Murphy says that the consequences of backing Saudi Arabia in this war have only been collateral damage and chaos that has allowed extremist groups to expand their presence in Yemen.  “I just don’t see any evidence right now that the Saudis are conducting that military exercise in a way that’s responsible. It’s just feeding the humanitarian crisis inside Yemen” Murphy told HuffPo.  Murphy’s call for the US to leave Yemen has been the first to come from a lawmaker.

Senator Murphy says that American logistical and financial support for Yemen is undermining America’s core objectives in the region, which is reducing the threat of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS. In the past year alone, the US has resupplied Saudi Arabia with $1.29 billion in bombs that have been used to attack Yemen. Senator Murphy wants conditions put on the sale of weapons to the Saudi, “[so] that they stop using cluster bombs, that they commit to not purposely targeting civilians, that they allow for humanitarian relief to reach displaced populations, that they make a commitment not to in any way directly coordinate with Sunni extremist groups.”

Civilian deaths are sometimes an unavoidable outcome in war. But the basic laws of war require combatants to take precautions and minimize the risk to non-combatants. As it is becoming increasingly clear that Saudi Arabia is not living up to its obligations, those who are supporting this military campaign may bear some liability.