The US Senate debated and voted yesterday on an important resolution on whether to stop a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. While the resolution ultimately did not pass, an unprecedented number of senators voiced concerns about providing new weapons to Saudi Arabia – a stunning rebuke to a long-standing strategic ally.
In March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab countries began a military campaign against the Houthi armed group in Yemen. Since then the conflict has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties and led to massive displacement, malnutrition, and economic catastrophe. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by both sides to the conflict, including numerous coalition airstrikes, some using cluster bombs, that have violated the laws of war.
Yesterday's bipartisan resolution to halt the arms sale was cosponsored by four senators, led by Rand Paul and Chris Murphy. The resolution ultimately received the support of over a quarter of the Senate, including over half of the senators from President Barack Obama’s Democratic party, including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, Minority Whip Dick Durbin, and Patrick Leahy. Republicans on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees also supported the resolution. This shows significant concern about Saudi Arabia's conduct in Yemen.
Even those who did not vote in favor of the resolution made clear their concerns about Saudi Arabia's human rights record – including the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, and the Republican chair of the Armed Services Committee, John McCain. Some senators even noted that they may consider restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the future. Several other congressional efforts to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia – including a recent committee vote in the Senate on military training, and a vote in the House of Representatives to restrict cluster bombs – show that Congress as a body is becoming increasingly troubled by Saudi Arabia’s conduct and the fact that US-produced weapons are being used in possible war crimes.
Given that violations in Yemen are ongoing, Senators Chris Murphy and Rand Paul should continue their efforts to restrict military sales to the Saudis. It sends an important message to Riyadh and the US administration. The Saudi government needs to realize that the world is now watching, and there will be consequences for their mounting abuses in Yemen.