Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday certified to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure” in Yemen.
His certification of the Saudi and U.A.E. efforts allows the U.S. to continue supporting the airstrikes, although Pompeo’s statement has been called “objectively false” by Larry Lewis, a former State Department adviser to Saudi Arabia on reducing civilian casualties, and a “farce” by lawmakers who want to see actual accountability for Saudi actions.
“The situation has deteriorated dramatically in the past few days. Families are absolutely terrified by the bombardment, shelling, and airstrikes.”
This certification, required by law in order to allow the U.S. to continue to refuel Saudi coalition jets, is meant to assuage concerns that Saudi Arabia and its partners in the coalition aren’t recklessly striking targets.
But what does this certification actually mean and what can Congress do if the Saudi-led coalition continues to kill and injure civilians in Yemen?
Daniel Balson, Amnesty International’s director of advocacy for Europe and Central Asia, told ThinkProgress that the certification is a “purely political decision” and one that is not supported by many lawmakers and flies in the face of the findings of human rights groups, humanitarian organizations, and years of reporting.
Opposition among lawmakers to U.S. support of the Saudi-led coalition, said Balson, is neither fringe nor partisan, and there is, in fact, recourse, should the Saudi coalition not do as promised. For instance, lawmakers can take legislative action to prevent further sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
“The State Department is placing a bet right now. And they’re betting that they can continue defending procurement of military aid to the [Saudi] coalition while TV screens across the U.S. show images of dead kids,” said Balson. “That’s not a very good bet.”
The Trump administration’s backing of the Saudi coalition is a tough one to defend given the horrific record for civilian deaths, including the Aug. 9 strike on a school bus that killed around 40 children.
Even after Saudi Arabia admitted earlier this month that “mistakes” were made, a spokesman for its coalition, Colonel Turki al-Malki, denied it had killed dozens of children, mostly under the age of 13. He claimed that the school bus, which had stopped at a market for water, was a “legitimate” target. Al-Maliki questioned the veracity of devastating footage of children being pulled out of the wreckage, dead and alive, as well as footage of mourners carrying dozens of small coffins.
Just days later, Saudi-led airstrikes targeted women and children fleeing a town where their homes were under attack near Hodeidah, killing 22 children and four women.
Even after Pompeo’s certification, the news coming out of Yemen continues to be grim.
On Thursday, Reuters reported that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition backing the government had taken control of the main road linking the port city of Hodeidah (where the majority of food and medial supplies enter the country) to the capital of Sanaa, in order to block supplies to Houthi rebels.
And stopping the Houthis — which the U.S. and Saudi believe are largely being supported by Iran — is ostensibly the key justification for U.S. involvement in Yemen, as it is part of the Trump administration’s mission to curtail Iranian influence in the region.
The extent of Iran’s support of the Houthis has been disputed, but regardless, it’s the civilians who are really suffering, accord to the U.N. humanitarian envoy there.
“The situation has deteriorated dramatically in the past few days. Families are absolutely terrified by the bombardment, shelling and airstrikes,” Lise Grande said in a statement on Thursday.
The U.N. and humanitarian groups fear an all-out Saudi-led assault on Hodeidah, would lead to full-fledged famine in Yemen, where around 8.4 million people are on the brink of starvation.
As it stands, Grande said that the most vulnerable populations are already in serious jeopardy.
“More than 25 percent of children are malnourished; 900,000 people in the governorate are desperate for food and 90,000 pregnant women are at enormous risk,” she said.
The U.N.’s children’s agency, UNICEF, has called the war a “a living hell” for Yemen’s children.
Meritxell Relano, the UNICEF Representative in Yemen, told Reuters that over 11 million children — 80 percent the country’s under-18 population — are experiencing unstable food supplies, displacement, and disease.
The cutting off of food and medial aid through Hodeidah will have a direct, fast, and devastating impact on these children.
But the future of that investigation is in peril, as the mandate of the panel pushing it — the Group of Eminent Experts — is going to expire and might not be renewed. A global coalition of rights groups has called for the panel’s mandate to be renewed during this month’s Human Rights Council session:
Since its coalition’s involvement in the conflict, over 10,000 people have been killed, more than half of them civilians, with thousands dying in cholera epidemics that are a direct result of the conflict. The Saudi airstrikes have also struck facilities providing water to areas fighting cholera and have even struck a cholera clinic.
Houthi rebels have also been blamed for civilian deaths, although the group has no access to jets and can’t launch airstrikes as the Saudi-led coalition has, by the thousands. The United States has sold a massive number of weapons to Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates, with those weapons being used to kill civilians and destroy infrastructure.
“There is no question that in many of these strikes, U.S. munitions were the cause — that’s not subject to debate. So the Saudi-led coalition can claim ‘fake news’ all they like, but human rights organizations and the media have the receipts,” said Balson.
“The overall trajectory for folks who support the overall, unrestricted procurement of weapons to the Saudi-led coalition is not great,” he added. But the only way for harm to civilians to be reduced is “for the administration to stand up and simply say, ‘enough is enough,’ and ‘we’re not going to be complicit in these horrific losses of civilian lives anymore’ — and we haven’t seen that from this administration yet,” said Balson.
Other western countries also continue to sell Saudi Arabia weapons. On Thursday, Spain announced it would sell 400 laser-guided bombs to Gulf Arab kingdom in compliance with a 2015 deal signed by Spain’s previous government.