Sana, Yemen (wikimedia)

Kunduz, Yemen and U.S. War Crimes

For anyone with the stomach for it, see photos of the aftermath of the U.S.’s C-130 attack on the MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Kunduz that evoked an apology from President Obama. U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been authorized to make “condolence payments” to victims’ families and payments to MSF in order to repair the hospital. The U.S. and Afghan governments have also launched internal investigations into the deadly attack. However, MSF insists on an independent investigation and has described the hospital bombing as a war crime.

This kind of tragedy is almost a daily occurrence in Yemen where indiscriminate U.S.-backed Saudi airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians. The U.S. supplies the Saudi coalition with intelligence, logistics, rockets and bombs. An airstrike on a wedding party near Yemen’s port city of Mokha killed more than 130 people (for more examples, see Chap. 10: Lessons Learned in Yemen). The White House, the media, and the UN Security Council have devoted very little attention to devastating U.S.-guided airstrikes on civilians in Yemen. The impacts have been equally as destructive to life and property as the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs in heavily populated neighborhoods, which the U.S. frequently condemns.

Earlier in the year an ongoing political crisis in Yemen descended into civil war when Iranian-allied Houthi forces seized the capital (Sanaa) and advanced south toward the main port of Aden. Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia. This triggered the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led Arab military coalition’s bombing campaign against the Houthis. U.S. support for a military campaign in Yemen that is inflicting extreme hardship on millions of civilians in one of the Mideast’s poorest countries has not found its way as yet into presidential campaign debates.

The Obama administration’s stated commitment to stand up for the region’s oppressed people provides an abundance of material for charges of hypocrisy. Obama often reiterates his vow to oppose “the use of violence and repression against the people of the region” and to support “the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people.” Apart from the larger issue of U.S. opposition to an insurgency in Yemen that arose from the Arab Spring, the U.S. has fought efforts at the UN to scrutinize human rights abuses in Yemen. To its credit, a UN panel has blamed the “Saudi-led coalition” (no reference to the U.S.) for “grave violations” of civilians’ human rights in Yemen, including intentionally obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid to needy civilians.

The Saudi coalition has been faulted by the UN for not providing Yemen civilians with sufficient warning before launching airstrikes. Here’s a glaring example of the failure not only of Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but the U.S. for lack of even the most minimal attention to human rights. Prior to bombing the Houthi-held Province of Sadah, the coalition dropped warning leaflets, which made no sense since most of the area’s residents are illiterate. In addition, civilians did not have fuel for their cars and had to flee on foot.

A proposal in the UN for investigation into potential human rights abuses in Yemen, supported by Security Council members, including Britain, France, Russia and China, was opposed behind the scenes by the U.S. Since the U.S. supplies the Saudi coalition with intelligence, logistics and bombs to support airstrikes that have exacted a terrible toll on civilians in Yemen, it is concerned about accusations by the UN of complicity in war crimes. As for most members of Congress, their focus mainly has been on whether the U.S. is doing enough to support Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors to counter Iranian influence, and not on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, although on occasion mention also is made about the high level of civilian casualties.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and other human rights groups have pressed for an independent investigation into war crimes by both sides in the conflict. Recently the Obama administration has sought to distance itself from the coalition’s bombing excesses. He has insisted that the U.S. plays no role in deciding which targets to hit in Yemen.

Behind the scenes, however, the United States has been urging the Saudis to make peace and to minimize civilian suffering. Supposedly the main obstacle to peace talks is strong opposition by exiled President Hadi. U.S. and U.N. officials say that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are keen to begin talks with the Houthis. But they say Hadi has strongly resisted. Hadi and his top ministers are comfortably ensconced in a five-star guest palace in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh. They have no support either in Yemen or the Gulf region.