(New York) - The United States should investigate Yemen's apparent diversion of US counterterrorism assistance to an abusive military campaign unrelated to terrorist threats and suspend such aid unless the misuse has stopped, Human Rights Watch said today. The Obama administration and the US Congress also should investigate reported Saudi use of US-supplied ammunition in Yemen and US missile strikes in Yemen, including a 2009 attack that killed several dozen local residents.
US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks this month stated that Yemen in 2009 repeatedly diverted US-supported Yemeni counterterrorism forces and possibly US-supplied military vehicles to assist the government's fight against northern Huthi rebels. In the cables, US diplomats complain that their requests for Yemen to halt such diversions were having little effect. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous possible violations of the laws of war by government as well as rebel forces in the Huthi conflict. The US should also investigate reported Saudi use of US-supplied military hardware in the Yemeni-Huthi conflict.
The leaked cables also confirm that the US, not the Yemeni government, carried out missile strikes in December 2009 in the south of the country, including one that killed 42 local residents.
"Yemeni authorities diverted US taxpayers' dollars from the fight against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to potentially abusive operations against Huthi rebels," said Letta Tayler, terrorism and counterterrorism researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Tolerating such misuse of military assistance for Yemen's domestic political struggles could implicate the US in these abusive practices."
US military assistance to Yemen more than doubled from US$67 million to $150 million in 2010 and is expected to increase to $250 million in 2011 in response to efforts by Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to carry out attacks abroad. Since 2002, the US has spent more than $115 million on Yemeni counterterrorism forces, including the elite Counter-Terrorism Unit that US diplomats say in cables was deployed to attack northern rebel forces.
Human Rights Watch's April 2010 report on the Huthi-government armed conflict in northern Yemen, "All Quiet on the Northern Front," documents credible allegations that Yemeni government forces indiscriminately shelled and bombed civilian areas in its fight against the Huthis, causing civilian casualties, and used child soldiers. Those practices violate the laws of war. It also found violations by Huthi forces.
US investigations should include an assessment of steps that US embassy officials in 2009 said that they would take to address shortcomings in their "End-Use Monitoring Agreement," a pact that allows the US to check if Yemen misused or illicitly transferred any US security assistance.
The US government should take an equally hard look at its own military's conduct in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.
One leaked diplomatic cable from December 2009 recounts how Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised US Gen. David H. Petraeus that he would continue to falsely claim that US missile strikes against suspected AQAP targets were Yemeni operations. Those strikes included a December 17 cruise missile attack in the southern province of Abyan that killed at least 42 people, the majority of them women and children. The Abyan strike reportedly used cluster munitions, weapons that are banned by more than 100 countries because they are unable to distinguish between military and civilian people and objects. US officials have refused to publicly confirm media reports that the US military carried out the airstrike.
"The US should immediately conduct an impartial review of the Abyan strike to ensure compliance with international law, including the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks that harm civilians," Tayler said. "The Obama administration has yet to clarify the legal basis for such strikes."
Additional US cables that Wikileaks made public show that Saudi Arabia, which was a party to the Yemeni-Huthi conflict at least from November 2009 until early February 2010, sought ammunition from the US specifically for use in its military engagement against Huthi forces. A cable from the US embassy in Riyadh dated December 30, 2009, described that the US responded "with alacrity" to the request and supplied ammunition.
The Saudi deputy minister of defense, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, on November 10, 2009, announced Saudi Arabia was establishing a 10-kilometer buffer zone inside Yemen. A Saudi official characterized the zone as "no place for civilians," raising concerns that civilian immunity would not be respected.
Human Rights Watch in "All Quiet on the Northern Front?" reported that Huthi rebels had claimed that on December 13, 2009, multiple Saudi airstrikes had hit a public market in Bani Mu'in in Razih district in Sa'da governorate, allegedly killing 70 civilians and injuring hundreds more.
A US embassy cable from Riyadh dated February 7, 2010, voiced concern that Saudi strikes hit a "Yemeni medical clinic," which Prince Khaled seemed to acknowledge, claiming it was used by Huthi forces. Based on Prince Khaled's assurances that Saudi forces would take care to avoid civilian objects, the US ambassador recommended that the US also supply satellite imagery of the conflict to Saudi Arabia.