Senate votes down bill to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia

A soldier looks through a hole in a building damaged after an airstrike by Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 20, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed
A soldier looks through a hole in a building damaged after an airstrike by Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 20, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

The Senate voted against blocking a $1.15 billion arm sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, despite accusations that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is committing war crimes. The vote failed by a count of 71 to 27.

A bipartisan initiative by Republican Sens. Rand Paul (KY) and Mike Lee (UT) and Democrats Chris Murphy (CT) and Al Franken (MN) was behind the proposal to block the U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The House recently followed suit with its own bipartisan proposal, backed by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Mick Mulvaney (R-SC).

The State Department approved an arms deal last month that would see the delivery of up to “153 M1A1/A2 battle tanks, 33 recovery vehicles and the supporting equipment, including heavy machine guns, smoke grenade launchers, thermal sights and ammo,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday. Human rights organizations have advocated for blocking this arms sale to Saudi Arabia due to their conduct in Yemen.

“My motivation [for supporting the legislation] is very simple,” Rep. Lieu told ThinkProgress by phone on Wednesday morning, before the vote in Congress had taken place. “To stop war crimes in Yemen. The U.S. should not be aiding [this coalition] in massive civilian atrocities.”

The war in Yemen has killed 10,000 people so far, almost 40 percent of whom are civilians, according to the United Nations. Saudi Arabia is leading the campaign and predominately using airstrikes. Out of the 8,600 airstrikes launched to date, more than 3,000 were mis-targeted. On August 15, a U.S.-made bomb launched by the Saudi-led coalition hit a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders in a rebel held northern province and killed 19 people, including one staffer for the group.

“It is outrageous that states have continued to supply the Saudi Arabia-led coalition with weapons, including guided and general purpose aerial bombs and combat aircraft,” Amnesty’s MENA Research and Advocacy chief Philip Luther said at the time.

Lieu said various human rights organizations have documented “massive civilian casualties,” including children, that are “completely unacceptable.”

Lieu said he didn’t object to the United States assisting Saudi Arabia — a traditional ally — but he strongly objects to aiding the commitment of war crimes, including bombing “schools, hospitals, and marketplaces.”

“This degrades Saudi Arabia’s reputation in the international community,” he said.

Despite the failed vote on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia has still come under increased scrutiny from Congress in recent months. Both chambers of Congress have already passed a bill to allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the oil-rich kingdom — and the Senate is already looking to overrule an expected veto of the bill from President Obama.

At a meeting at the Center for the National Interest in Washington on Monday, Sen. Paul said the standards set for the Saudis should be higher. “I think holding back the arms may give them a chance to show that they can do better,” he said.

After repeated controversy concerning Saudi Arabia’s role in the world, one that some see as nefarious, some members of Congress are now looking to realign the Saudi-U.S. relationship.

“Our interests are not aligned in fundamental ways, in the way that many new senators and congressmen are taught when you show up here,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT.) said at the same meeting. “If we are helping to radicalize Yemenis against us, we are participating in the slaughter of civilians, and we are allowing extremist groups that have plans and plots against the United States to grow stronger, how can that be in our security interest?” Murphy asked.