As War Crimes Continue In Yemen, Saudi-Led Coalition Must Be Held Accountable

On August 9th, the Yemeni civil war attracted international attention when the Saudi-led coalition dropped a bomb on a packed school bus in Sada province, killing 40 children and 11 adults. It was thought that this attack may have sparked enough international outrage that coalition forces would be more cautious about collateral damage caused by airstrikes. Just 14 days later however, coalition airstrikes in Durayhimi district killed at least 26 children and 4 women who fled from the fighting.

The UK Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt tweeted his concern about the bus airstrike, posting that “transparent investigation required. UK calls on all parties to prevent civilian casualties and to cooperate with UN to reach a lasting political solution in Yemen.” US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called the school bus attack appalling and urged the Saudi government to “quickly complete their investigation into this incident, take appropriate accountability measures and release the results publicly.” The United States stopped short of starting an independent investigation however, choosing to trust in the Saudi-led coalition to conduct a fair one.

The Saudi-led coalition has tasked its investigative body, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), to report on the incident. The Obama and Trump administrations have pointed to the JIAT as a sign that the coalition has become increasingly aware of the civilian casualties they are causing and are actively trying to avoid them. Critics claim that the JIAT is instead a cynical attempt by coalition forces to placate their western allies and absolve themselves of wrongdoing.

The UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, as well as Doctors Without Borders have all criticized the JIAT for failing to conduct legitimate investigations. The Human Rights Watch accuses the JIAT of “covering up war crimes” rather than conducting a credible investigation of coalition airstrikes. So far, only two of the 75 available reports have held the coalition responsible and recommended further action. The other 73 absolved the coalition of blame, attributing civilian deaths to technical errors and “unintentional” intelligence errors. The independent Yemen Data Project reports that out of over 18,000 coalition airstrikes between March 2015 and April 2018, only 36 percent of attacks were against confirmed military targets. 31 percent of targets were non-military and 33 percent were unknown targets.

Even though the JIAT is expected to produce credible reports into coalition airstrikes, very little is publicly known about the investigative body and its process. Saudi state media says that the JIAT “consists of 14 members with experience and competence in military and legal fields,” all from coalition states. The only known member of the JIAT is its spokesman, Colonel Mansour Al-Mansour, a Bahraini military lawyer who prosecuted hundreds of peaceful pro-democracy protesters during the Arab Spring in his country. Many received life sentences, and dozens allege that he oversaw torture and sexual assault against them. Additionally, Mansour advised Bahrain not to follow a UN ban on cluster munitions, which the coalition is accused of using in Yemen today. The JIAT has chosen not to reveal who the other 13 members are, and they are free to operate without transparency.

Moreover, the Saudi-led coalition has been dismissive of international criticism. Coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki initially defended the attack on the school bus by claiming that Houthi rebels used the children as “human shields,” and responded to the latest coalition strike on children in Durayhimi by saying “there is no war without collateral damage.” He furthermore claimed that the UN is being pressured by Houthi rebels to release biased reports against the coalition. JIAT spokesman, Mansour Al-Mansour, defends his investigations, claiming that “[i]nternational organizations report information received from eyewitnesses and from injured parties. To them, any damage taking place while aircraft are in the sky is an airstrike, and thus attributed to Coalition forces, but the issue is that it might be a missile launched by other parties.”

Houthi rebels are certainly not blameless in the war. International organizations have documented their human rights violations in Yemen, from the use of child soldiers to the use of torture and the shelling of cities. In response, the UN Security Council has imposed sanctions, travel bans and asset freezes on Houthi leaders. However, Houthi actions do not validate coalition violations. International organizations should scrutinize both sides of a conflict, which they do. But the UN has yet to impose sanctions on members of the coalition as they have with their Houthi counterparts, despite having committed actionable offences.

Not only does the UN have a responsibility to curb the Saudi-led coalition’s human rights abuses in Yemen, the US and UK must also take a stand, as they are responsible for the vast majority of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, as well as providing targeting assistance and intelligence throughout the war in Yemen.

The UK has supplied over £4.7 billion worth of weapons to the Saudi coalition since the war in Yemen began. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the August 9th bus attack “truly awful” but defended the UK’s involvement in the Yemeni Civil War believing that British-Saudi ties helps to fight Islamic extremism, Hunt also claimed that aiding the coalition in Yemen “means that we stop bombs going off on the streets of Britain.”

Selling arms to the Saudi-coalition causes bombs to go off in Yemeni streets, however. The bomb that killed a school bus full of children on August 9th was found to be a laser-guided MK 82 manufactured by US defence contractor Lockheed Martin. US and UK-made weapons are not only used in the bombings of civilians in Yemen, they have also found their way into the hands of groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia remains one of the largest state sponsors of terror in the world, supporting Salafi terrorist groups throughout the Middle East.

Wikileaks documents reveal that it has been common knowledge in US State Department circles for at least a decade that Saudi Arabia supports the most extreme terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Diplomatic cables from the State Department reported in 2009, “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups, including Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources.” More recently, in 2016, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta highlighted the need to “bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” American and European arms sales embolden Saudi aggression, allowing them to support groups that destabilize the region and commit human rights violations.

The Obama administration brought the United States into the war in Yemen and it took two years for it to respond to the reported war crimes there. It was not until an airstrike that killed over 140 Yemenis in a funeral hall in October 2016 that Obama began to change his position. In his final weeks in office he passed a restriction on the sale of precision-guided arms to Saudi Arabia (this was overturned by Rex Tillerson in May 2017). In signing his $717 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the current American President, Donald Trump, decided to override restrictions designed to minimize civilian casualties in Yemen, claiming that he, as commander in chief, is “sole representative of the nation in foreign affairs.”

On the other hand, in 2016 the British Ministry of Defence denied that any personnel were involved in directing strikes, selecting targets or conducting operations in Yemen, but recent reports suggest that there is deep UK-Saudi cooperation. An ITV report in 2017 revealed that British and American liaison officers were present at the Saudi control center when bombing raids are directed – albeit separated by a glass wall to ensure they were not literally in the “same room” as Saudi command. The UK government has not been forthcoming about its involvement in Yemen and it is likely that the public is not aware of its full extent.

As the war in Yemen continues with no end in sight, the Saudi-coalition must be held accountable for the war crimes it has committed. As evidenced above, the JIAT does not conduct its investigations with transparency and impartiality. It appears to act as an arm of the coalition rather than an independent body. Transparent and independent investigations must therefore be carried out by international organizations and appropriate action must be taken to punish the abusers and compensate the abused. The US and the UK, aiders and abetters of the coalition, have also failed to be transparent with regards to their involvement in Yemen. Furthermore, both western countries are complicit in the war crimes in Yemen, and must also be held accountable by the UN.

Coalition assurances have proven to be empty, and thus the US and UK should halt arms sales until a legitimate investigation into human rights abuses takes place. As the primary suppliers of weapons to the military alliance, they have the power to pressure the member states and truly affect change in Yemen. Until this happens, the blood of Yemeni civilians will be on their hands as well as the Saudi-led coalition’s.