Dozens of US Senators just sent a powerful message to Saudi Arabia: they – unlike President Donald Trump – want to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a country that has repeatedly used US weapons in attacks that likely constitute war crimes. Forty-seven senators voted to block a US$510 million weapons deal, meaning it was only three votes short of passing.

Journalists and police inspect the scene at the community hall in Sanaa that Saudi-led coalition warplanes attacked on October 8, 2016. 

© 2016 Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Numbers like these in the Senate, historically reluctant to adopt measures that could potentially damage the US-Saudi alliance, show the tide is shifting.

The bipartisan resolution of disapproval, introduced by Senators Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, and Chris Murphy and Al Franken, Democrats from Connecticut and Minnesota, highlights the sales of aircraft components and weapons used by the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. A similar bipartisan version was introduced in the House. If the resolution passed, it would have blocked the sale of precision-guided munitions – the first of potentially dozens of arms sales authorized by Trump.

Last December, the Obama administration halted the sale of US$400 million in arms to Saudi Arabia, including precision-guided munitions, citing concerns about civilian casualties from airstrikes in Yemen. But one of Trump’s first foreign policy moves was to announce huge arms deals with the Saudis, worth more than US$110 billion, including Raytheon bombs, Lockheed Martin missile defense systems, and BAE combat vehicles. The Trump Administration also green lighted the weapons deal Obama froze.

Human Rights Watch has documented scores of serious violations of humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition since it began its military campaign in Yemen against the Houthis and their allies in March 2015. Coalition airstrikes have hit homes, schools, factories, markets, and hospitals, many apparently unlawful attacks under international law and some likely war crimes. Some egregious attacks have used US-supplied bombs – including an airstrike on a market in northern Yemen in March 2016, that killed 97 civilians, including 25 children. The conflict has led to a humanitarian catastrophe, with famine and cholera outbreaks hitting poor children and families the hardest, and both sides blocking aid access.

Senators Murphy and Paul have led the charge against US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

This level of bipartisan support for this resolution could be a game-changer and is hopefully the beginning of the end for US cooperation in Saudi-led coalition abuses in Yemen. The Senate should keep up pressure on the Trump administration until the Saudis end their unlawful attacks and credibly investigate the scores they have already conducted.