A building was destroyed in a Saudi-led air strike near the al-Saleh mosque in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016.

A building was destroyed in a Saudi-led air strike near the al-Saleh mosque in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. Hani Mohammed/AP

Made-in-America Weapons, War Crimes, and the Outcry Over Yemen

As the US limits some arms sales to Saudi Arabia, human rights groups present 'overwhelming evidence' pointing back at Washington.

Yemen’s 21-month war has devastated the country and sparked a humanitarian catastrophe. The UN recorded 4,014 killed and thousands more injured by Saudi-led coalition air strikes between March 2015 and September 2016, carried out with the backing of the US and UK.

The war has displaced 2.2 million Yemenis, while an additional 180,000 have fled the country (refugees are so desperate, some are fleeing to Somalia). Yemen, already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, was pulled into this crisis after Houthi rebels ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in early 2015. Alarmed by the Houthi rebel advances in Yemen, neighboring Saudi Arabia and its allies in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council called for the United Nations to bring an end to the “coup” (pdf).

The Saudi-led coalition quickly began an extraordinary air campaign, pounding the rebels in Yemen in a desperate bid to reinstate Hadi’s government. Within three months, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition had been accused of war crimes, including hitting a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital.

That’s a problem for the US and UK, who have been selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. Both countries have signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which prohibits the selling of weapons where it is known that they would be used in war crimes. The UK, which has ratified the ATT, is bound by its rules, while the US cannot undermine its objective as a signatory.

“In total, Human Rights Watch has documented the use of US weapons in 23 apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes,” says Priyanka Motaparthy, a senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch. “That’s quite a significant number.” Motaparthy also slams the British government for ignoring “overwhelming evidence” that there is a high likelihood that UK-made weapons “could be used in unlawful strikes.”

So, what does this “overwhelming evidence” look like?

  • On May 2015—two months after the Saudi Arabia coalition begun its campaign—a coalition spokesman announced that the entire city of Saada would be considered a military target and told all civilians to leave the province. Human Rights Watch condemned the announcement, arguing it “violated the laws-of-war prohibition against placing civilians at particular risk by treating a number of separate and distinct military objectives as a single military target.”
  • In September 2015, a British-made cruise missile was used by the coalition in an attack on a Yemeni ceramics factory, which killed at least one civilian, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
  • Between August and October 2015, Amnesty International found evidence of five unlawful airstrikes on schools, which killed five civilians and injured at least 14. Amnesty International called on the international community to further investigate these airstrikes
  • In October 2015, the Saudi Arabia-led-Coalition dropped bombs on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital, despite having been given the hospital’s coordinates (by August 2016, the coalition would go on to attack no less than four MSF hospitals).
  • In November 2015, The International Committee of the Red Cross condemned the attacks on health care facilities, specifically Al-Thawra hospital, one of the main health care facilities in Taiz.
  • According to the UN, nearly three quarters (73%) of child deaths and injuries during the second quarter of 2015 were caused by air strikes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.
  • In May 2016, Amnesty International found evidence that US and UK cluster munitions, which release many indiscriminate small bomblets over a wide area, were being used by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition force. The UK is a signatory of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster bombs. The UK and Saudi Arabia-led coalition first deny the use of cluster munitions, but would later go on to admit cluster munitions were used.
  • In August 2016, MSF withdrew its teams from six hospitals in north Yemen following the aerial bombing of Abs Hospital.
  • In July 2016, a report by Human Rights Watch details 17 apparently unlawful airstrikes on 13 civilian economic sites, including factories, commercial warehouses, a farm, and two power facilities. These strikes killed 130 civilians and injured 171 more.
  • In August 2016, the Saudi-led coalition bombed a potato factory in the capital’s Nahda district, killing 14 people working there, mostly women.
  • In September 2016, the Yemen Data Project showed that a third of all Saudi Arabia-led air raids in Yemen hit civilian sites, such as school buildings, hospitals, and mosques.
  • In October 2016, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition admitted to bombing a funeral, killing at least 140 people and wounding about 600. The coalition blamed it on “wrong information.”

Over the course of the war, the UK and US have rebuked Saudi Arabia, but last week the US went one step further and announced it was limiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia amid concerns over Yemen, with a White House spokesman warning Saudi Arabia that US security co-operation was “not a blank check.” (Saudi Arabia would later try to downplay this report).

“This is the first time you have US officials saying ‘because of our concerns about the number of civilian deaths, because of our concern about how the targeting practices. We are halting this sale,'” says Motaparthy, “I think that message—even if only one sale was halted—is an important one.”

But the US is continuing to provide a huge package of military equipment, assistance, and advice to the Saudi Arabia, Motaparthy explains. And despite the evidence of the coalition using cluster bombs, the UK reaffirmed its support for Saudi Arabia, insisting the weapons were used against “legitimate military targets.”

“The US government is the largest arms exporter in the world, so if even it has reservations then you know it’s time to act,” says Andrew Smith, a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade. “Like the US, the UK has licensed billions of pounds worth of arms to Saudi forces. Like their US counterparts, UK arms companies have fueled and profited from the destruction taking place.”