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Resolution Seeks to Block US Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia

‘Quiet Diplomacy’ Has Failed to Stem Abuses in Yemen Campaign

A bipartisan resolution was introduced in the US Congress today to block a US$1.15 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia. The proposed sale is the latest in a long line — the US sold more than US$20 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia in 2015. It comes as the US continues to provide logistical, tactical, and intelligence support to the Saudi-led military operation against the Houthis and their allies in Yemen that has resulted in numerous laws-of-war violations. 

A coalition airstrike destroyed the Sanaa Chamber of Commerce offices in a January 5, 2016 airstrike. © 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

More than 10,000 civilians have been killed and wounded in the 18-month conflict and more than three million displaced. At least 80 percent of the population now relies on some form of humanitarian assistance.

Senators should be asking tough questions about this sale, which, if it goes ahead, is sending precisely the wrong message at a crucial time. The same week the Obama administration notified Congress about the sale, the Saudi-led coalition bombed another civilian factory, killing 10 civilians. A few days later, an airstrike hit a Doctors Without Borders-supported hospital, killing 19. The most recent attacks follow dozens of unlawful strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch and others, including those using US-made weapons.

In August, while in Saudi Arabia to discuss Yemen, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US had been “very clear” about its concern regarding civilian casualties, and that the Saudis were taking the concerns “seriously.” The evidence indicates otherwise.

The “resolution of disapproval” introduced today, by Senators Rand Paul, Chris Murphy, Mike Lee, and Al Franken, comes amid growing calls – by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Campaign Against Arms Trade, and the Guardian and New York Times editorial boards – to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia given its record in Yemen. It also comes as other members of Congress have increasingly raised concerns about the coalition’s compliance with the laws of war and the impact on Yemeni civilians.

Calling out the coalition’s repeated abuses isn’t meant to obscure or ignore those committed by other parties: Houthi and allied forces have used antipersonnel landmines and child soldiers, and indiscriminately shelled civilian areas in Yemen and Saudi Arabia

But Kerry’s expressions of concern about Saudi Arabia’s killing of civilians are insufficient given the scope of the abuses. In any case, his statements are undermined by the fact that US is continuing the billions of dollars’ worth of sales like the one revealed in August. Raising these concerns quietly clearly hasn’t stemmed coalition abuses, and as violations multiply and the catastrophic humanitarian situation worsens, the US, itself a party to this conflict, will face greater pressure both at home and abroad for its role in Yemen.

The resolution of disapproval is a step forward, and this initiative and others like it should be supported. Yemenis deserve more than quiet concern; they deserve an outcry.

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