On 12 September, United States (US) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced his support for the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen. His statement reaffirmed the US government’s belief that the coalition was “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.” This came in response to bipartisan outrage in US congress over several high-profile coalition airstrikes against Yemeni civilians, including one school bus bombing that killed 40 children. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, Mike Pompeo was convinced to support the war in Yemen after his legislative affairs team, headed by former Raytheon lobbyist Charles Faulkner, warned him that doing otherwise may impact arms sales with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
As part of the US annual defense spending bill, Republicans and Democrats agreed to include an amendment requiring the Secretary of State to certify that the Saudi and UAE governments undertook efforts to minimize civilian harm. Failure to endorse the two governments would result in a halt to US funding for the war in Yemen.
While some of Pompeo’s staffers were concerned by increased civilian casualties in Yemen, his legislative affairs team suggested that “lack of certification will negatively impact pending arms transfers.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told The Intercept: “Mr. Faulkner has extensive experience working with Capitol Hill. His previous positions, however, have no bearing on the final certification decision.”
Husain Abdulla of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain claimed that the revelation “demonstrates that the current administration is more moved by the pleas of arms dealers than by the cries of Yemenis. In effect, the Trump administration is sanctioning the slaughter of civilians for the profit of a US company. Congress must continue to press the administration to take serious action to halt US complicity with the death and suffering in the war in Yemen.” Scott Paul of Oxfam America criticized the administration for “doubling down on its failed policy of literally fueling the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.”
US laws require arms sales to be suspended if they are used by parties in a way deemed illegal, but the US government has historically had a high tolerance for buyers who use their weapons to commit war crimes. Aside from Saudi and UAE bombings of civilians in Yemen, US arms sent to Saudi Arabia have been found in the arsenals of Saudi-friendly terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. Pompeo cited Saudi Arabia and the UAE as “strong counterterrorism partners” in his statement, referring to their expulsion of al-Qaeda fighters from the Yemeni port city of Mukalla. However, the Associated Press reports that the al-Qaeda fighters dispersed largely without fighting, and were instead bribed with cash and weapons and even recruited into the coalition army.
The Trump administration has gone further than previous administrations in putting profit over human life. For example, the Obama administration’s 2014 conventional arms policy prevented “attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians,” while the Trump administration added a loophole, preventing “attacks intentionally directed against civilian objects or civilians.” The distinction is important as the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), a body of the Saudi-led coalition tasked with investigating coalition human rights violations in Yemen, frequently concludes that airstrikes targeting civilians were simply errors.
The revolving door in US politics is concerning, whereby figures can easily switch between roles as public sector legislators and private sector beneficiaries of legislation. As long as American politicians and lobbyists prioritize the profits of their friends over the protection of human life around the world, war will continue and war crimes with it. Laws must be put in place to remove money from politics, and to ensure that politicians follow their conscience instead of the whims of the military industrial complex.
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