On the night of January 5, a squadron of F-15 fighter jets from the Royal Saudi Air Force carpet-bombed a neighborhood in the densely populated Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Following the assault, the Al-Noor Center for the Blind lay in ruins.
“People with disabilities are being struck in their residence,” fumed Abdullah Ahmed Banyan, a patient at the facility. “Can you imagine they are striking the blind? What is this criminality? Why? Is it the blind that are fighting the war?”
The local chamber of commerce, a wedding hall, and several residential areas were also targeted by the Saudi bombs that night.
The attack, which was strongly condemned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, exemplifies two main characteristics of the brutal, scarcely reported war in Yemen: First, the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition is committing massive human rights violations and war crimes. And second, that’s bringing untold suffering upon the Yemeni civilian population, pushing it ever closer to humanitarian catastrophe.
A War Is Born
The current conflict in Yemen can be traced at least back to 2014, when — after years of intermittent civil war and political chaos — rebels calling themselves the Houthis captured Sanaa and forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. In February 2015, the rebels launched a coup d’état and have been de facto governing the country since then.
The rebels have received support from renegade sections of the Yemeni military that are loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, himself a former foe of the Houthis. From the outside, they’re thought to be supported financially and through arms supplies from Iran, leading Saudi Arabia to accuse its rival of trying to get a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula. Under the pretense of restoring Hadi, a Saudi-led coalition supported by Western countries began the massive bombing of Yemen in March 2015.
Thrown into further turmoil by the air strikes, Yemen became an even more fertile breeding ground for Islamist groups. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — which is considered the most dangerous offshoot of the global terror network — has used the chaos to conquer cities in southern Yemen in the shadow of Saudi fighter jets. The Islamic State has also laid eyes on Yemen, attempting to contest Yemeni territory from its Islamist rival AQAP.
Tension among different Islamic denominations was never a big issue in Yemen. But increased attacks by hardline Sunni Islamic State and Saudi forces on the positions of the largely Shiite Houthi rebels — and especially on Shiite mosques — have turned a secular war more and more into an sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.
Systematic War Crimes
One of the few international journalists in Yemen, The Intercept’s Iona Craig, has painted a bleak picture of a merciless war against the Yemeni civilian population. She reported that Saudi Arabian fighter jets routinely attack densely populated residential areas, marketplaces, and civilian infrastructure.
There are no reliable records on casualty statistics, and the number of unreported cases is thought to be high. Depending on the source, they amount to several thousand dead, half of whom are civilians, and thousands more injured. Over 2 million Yemenis are internally displaced, and over 120,000 have fled to neighboring countries.
An investigation by the United Nations last summer raised alarm about the disastrous situation facing the civilian population. Four out of five people in Yemen are dependent on humanitarian aid, the report said, and about three-quarters don’t have access to safe drinking water. The UN described the situation as a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
The destruction of infrastructure and especially an accompanying naval blockade of Yemen, which cuts off the population from aid supplies and food imports, has resulted in more than half of Yemenis being food insecure. Over 300,000 children there are suffering from severe acute malnourishment — a problem worsened by the coalition’s assaults on hospitals and schools.
The Saudi-led coalition systematically bombards Yemeni hospitals — so far damaging a total of more than 130, including several facilities of Doctors Without Borders. As a result, theIndependent reports, “Yemen’s health care system is left in tatters.” Injured people often don’t dare go to the doctor anymore. Illnesses such as polio, dengue fever, and diarrhea are on the rise.
Amnesty International documents the systematic shelling of schools as well. As a result, more than a third of Yemeni children have been unable to attend school since the bombing began. Amnesty’s Lama Fakih puts it unambiguously: “Deliberately attacking schools and directly attacking civilians are war crimes.”
Meanwhile, Yemen’s rich cultural heritage is crumbling under the weight of Saudi bombs. The country is home to priceless historic and cultural treasures and is often referred to as a “living museum.” Yet countless millennia-old structures have been systematically targeted by Saudi bombers, who’ve “pulverized” a great many of them, according to The Intercept. Likewise, many Shiite mosques have been destroyed by the Saudis.
UNESCO was recently compelled to put two more World Heritage Sites in Yemen on its list of World Heritage in danger. Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, condemned “the senseless destruction of one of the richest cultures of the Arab region.” In The New York Times, the renowned archaeologist Lamya Khalidi called it “cultural vandalism.”
International Law in Tatters
The weaponry and tactics employed by the Saudis make their choice of targets all the more brutal.
A favored practice is the “double tap” tactic inspired by CIA drone attacks in Pakistan: A few minutes after a first air raid, a target is bombarded a second time in order to kill the rescue forces coming to help. On July 6 alone last year, 35 people were killed in this despicable manner in Fayoush, in the Lahj province.
A report by Human Rights Watch revealed that the Saudi air force has used U.S.-made cluster bombs on a large scale in Yemen. The group has documented their deployment on several villages, particularly in the Hajja region in the northwest of Yemen, and condemned it as a violation of international law.
Indeed, the Convention on Cluster Munitions — which was ratified by 118 states, though not by either the United States or Saudi Arabia — condemns the use of these bombs because they disintegrate in the air into hundreds of smaller bombs, which descend to the earth in a large radius. It’s impossible for anyone using the weapons to distinguish between civilians and combatants, a problem exacerbated by the leftover remains of unexploded munitions that may explode at any time if they’re stumbled upon by civilians. Human Rights Watch staff found a large number of unexploded cluster bombs in the fields of the Hajja region, which makes the continued use of farmland there an incalculable lethal risk. “We can’t work the fields anymore because of the bombs,” a Yemeni farmer lamented.
The Rome Statute includes in its definition of war crimes the launching of any attack “in the knowledge that” it will cause “injury to civilians.” Together with the cluster bomb convention, international law is quite clear on the subject: The use of cluster bombs in any situation amounts to war crimes and thus must be fiercely condemned, not only morally but also legally.
If nothing else, the Saudi bombings represent a systematic violation of the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1674 from 2006, which unambiguously made clear once again that it is the primary duty of every party to a conflict to protect civilian life and “recalls that deliberately targeting civilians [in] armed conflict is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”
Due to the countless crimes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein seeks to appoint a committee to investigate possible war crimes. Complicating those efforts, however, is a grim irony — and in my eyes a political scandal: Saudi Arabia, a country that abuses human rights at home and abroad like few others, has been heading an important UN Human Rights Council panel since last fall.
“Yemen is a human-made disaster,” Owen Jones writes in The Guardian, “and the fingerprints of the west are all over it.”
With a budget increase of 54 percent over the previous year, the Saudi royal family replacedIndia as the world’s largest arms importer in 2014 — and this past year replaced Russia as the world’s third-largest military spender, behind only the United States and China. The largest input for this spending spree is still contributed by the United States, closely followed by the three largest Western European arsenals.
France, for example, clinched a multibillion-dollar arms deal after the war in Yemen had already started — not only with Saudi Arabia, but also with the main regional coalition partner of the Saudis, Qatar. Similarly, under David Cameron’s rule, Britain has delivered arms worth more than $8 billion to the Saudis, and issued more than 100 additional export licenses in the last year. Furthermore, British military advisers are in the field in Saudi Arabia.
The German arms industry supplies the entire Arabian Peninsula with heavy military equipment. German G3 battle rifles have also been delivered on a massive scale in the fight against the Houthis directly to Yemen — a clear violation of the German constitution, yet possible with the system of granting licenses to Saudi Arabia.
In contrast, the European Parliament recently voted with an overwhelming majority for a comprehensive arms export embargo against Saudi Arabia, after a petition signed by 750,000 Europeans requested that Brussels step in. It’s now up to the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, to transform this mandate into binding legislation and to prove that the EU is able to hold its ground against the scheming of its most powerful members.
Support from Washington
Yet all this barely holds a candle to the support supplied by Washington.
A significant number of the Saudi fighter jets now terrorizing Yemen came from an arms dealthat was arranged by the team of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Christmas Eve 2011, part of the largest U.S. arms deal of all time. “Not a bad Christmas present,” a U.S. official said about the $29 billion deal, in which 84 fighter jets of the Boeing Company were sold to the Saudis.
In return, the Clinton Foundation received multimillion-dollar donations from both Boeing and the royal Saudi family. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clinton’s current electoral campaign has been supported massively by military contractors. In a globalized world, corruption and nepotism don’t seem to know any geographical or ideological boundaries.
The White House indicates that all active U.S. arms deals with the Saudis add up to a staggering $97 billion. Saudi Arabia is thus by far the largest customer for U.S. military equipment.
Just last November, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the sale of approximately 30,000 additional bombs, because the Saudi arsenal is “becoming depleted due to the high operational tempo” of their multiple so-called “counter-terrorism operations.” In the same document, the U.S. government concedes the actual purpose of the arms deal: to “safeguard the world’s largest oil reserves” and ensure the “stability of the global economy.”
An employee of the U.S. Department of Defense states the globally ostracized cluster bombs were sold to other countries only when U.S. authorities were granted an assurance they would be used exclusively against “clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present.” This clause, of course, is a farce — there’s virtually no way to use the bombs on clearly defined military targets, and violations of it have no consequences. There’s been little movement in the U.S. towards a future arms embargo, or even legal action.
On the contrary, the U.S. government talks down those violations in a naïveté that verges on servility: “The U.S. doesn’t believe the Saudis are deliberately targeting civilians, but U.S. weapons are sold solely for the purpose of a nation’s self defense,” the U.S. official continued.
The United States is also actively involved in the war in its own right, sending dozens of military advisers to Saudi Arabia, providing important intelligence information, and performing aerial refueling of Saudi fighter jets. “We stand with our friends in Saudi Arabia,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured his audience in a speech in Riyadh in January.
The fundamental problem with the support Saudi Arabia and its allies have received from the West is that it provides the war criminals with political and, more importantly, moral legitimacy. From its inception in 2001, the so-called “war on terror” was walking on thin ice when it came to legitimacy. When now Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar — states that are among the largest financial, logistical, and ideological supporters of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda — can evoke the term without argument, it’s become a farce once and for all.
A Last Chance at Peace
With its scorched earth tactics and deliberate targeting of Yemen’s Shiites, the House of Saud has transformed a secular political conflict over President Hadi’s rule into a religiously inflamed sectarian war. As the self-proclaimed protector of Sunnis, Saudi Arabia is dragging Yemen into its own confrontation with Iran, a Shiite power and Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival.
With the end of the crippling international economic sanctions against Iran and its opening to the world, the Saudis fear a resurgence in the heartland of the Shiites. As in Syria, the Yemen war now serves the Saudis as another military cog in their regional power struggle with Iran, which is escalating step-by-step and country-by-country — and often being fought to the last civilian.
Recently the two warring parties agreed to a ceasefire, which started on April 10, with subsequent peace negotiations. Both parties, the Houthis as well as the Saudis, gave half-hearted commitments to stick to the truce. Similar agreements have been broken repeatedly in the past. But absent much stronger U.S. and European pressure on their Saudi allies, it’s not clear what other options remain.
“The war in Yemen must be brought to an end before it does irreparable damage to the future of Yemen and the region,” said UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ould Cheikh Ahmed. “This is really our last chance.”
Originally published on Foreign Policy in Focus on May 6th, 2016.