When running for office, President Biden promised to “make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” In the context of the Yemen conflict, fulfilling this promise may not be easy, but it is clear: In Biden’s own words, America must “end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.” Unfortunately, the administration’s response to the recent escalation in the conflict has been to revert to the same failed playbook as previous administrations, risking further complicity in the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalition’s violations.
The Yemen conflict has devastated the lives of millions of people in Yemen over the past seven years, but the recent uptick in hostilities makes clear the deadly cost of broken promises. U.S. policymakers should take bold actions aimed at stopping the ongoing violations and support accountability in Yemen.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE began a military campaign against the Houthi armed group in response to the group’s takeover of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. Now, as the conflict enters its seventh year, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that it has caused the deaths of nearly a quarter-million people. In addition, more than half the population faces acute levels of food insecurity.
Early in the conflict, the U.S. began providing weapons, logistics and intelligence support to the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition. For years, Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented serious abuses on both sides. These include more than 90 unlawful and indiscriminate airstrikes by the coalition against civilians that could amount to war crimes. Some of the attacks included the use of U.S. weapons.
Though U.S. law prohibits selling arms to abusive governments, consecutive administrations have authorized at least $36 billion in arms sales to the Saudi and UAE governments, based on publicly available data. In doing so, the U.S. has chosen to ignore or enable serious international law violations, including possible war crimes, committed during the conflict.
Meanwhile, all parties have continued to commit violations. Longstanding concerns about a lack of accountability for serious crimes intensified in October when members of the UN Human Rights Council, under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, narrowly voted to end the mandate of the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, the only independent, international body documenting serious violations and abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.
But the absence of accountability has led to more of the same. In a recent escalation in January, Houthi forces launched a missile and drone attack on Abu Dhabi, in part striking civilian airports, in response to the UAE-backed Yemeni forces pushing Houthi forces out of territory in Shabwah governorate. The attack killed three people and injured six others. In retaliation, the coalition launched airstrikes across Yemen, several of which appear to be disproportionate, including the bombing of a prison in Sanaa that killed over 80 people, according to MSF.
In response to the recent escalation, the Biden administration apparently has doubled down on support to the coalition, announcing the sale of additional fighter aircraft to the UAE. Biden said the administration is considering redesignating the Houthis a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” Biden had reversed this designation, imposed in the waning days of the Trump administration and opposed by humanitarian and human rights groups on the grounds that it threatens humanitarian aid on which millions of Yemenis rely to survive.
In addition to potentially violating U.S. law, continuing arms sales to the coalition puts the U.S. at risk of complicity in possible war crimes. The sales also fly in the face of justice and accountability for previous violations given the coalition’s dreadfully flawed investigations of its own strikes.
But it isn’t too late for the Biden administration to prioritize human rights and accountability in Yemen. Human Rights Watch and other Yemeni and international groups have called upon the U.S. and its allies to halt arm sales to the coalition. If the Biden administration cannot or will not act, Congress needs to step in. Specifically, Congress should publicly and privately communicate to the administration that arms sales to the coalition should stop and that the Houthis should not be redesignated a “terrorist” group.
The administration also should prioritize re-establishing a UN accountability mechanism to hold all parties in Yemen accountable for violations of international law, with a focus on criminal accountability for rights violations and possible war crimes.
By taking these bold but essential steps now, the U.S. can finally recognize the war in Yemen for what it is: a conflict with all parties committing serious violations and, as the UN has said, one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The U.S. needs to do its part to help put an end to the prolonged suffering of millions of Yemenis.