US Abets Saudi War Crimes in Yemen

U.S. officials are quick to decry “human rights violations” in “enemy” states, but different rules apply to “allies” such as Saudi Arabia, which is committing war crimes in Yemen and executing dissidents at home while the Obama administration aids and abets the atrocities, writes Marjorie Cohn for TeleSUR.

By Marjorie Cohn

Saudi Arabia has engaged in war crimes, and the United States is aiding and abetting them by providing the Saudis with military assistance. In September 2015, Saudi aircraft killed 135 wedding celebrants in Yemen. The air strikes have killed 2,800 civilians, including 500 children. Human Rights Watch charges that these bombings “have indiscriminately killed and injured civilians.”

This conflict is part of a regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are bombing Yemen in order to defeat the Houthi rebels, who have been resisting government repression for a long time. Iran has been accused of supporting the Houthis, although Iran denies this. Yemen is strategically located on a narrow waterway that links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea. Much of the world’s oil passes through this waterway.

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem as the First Lady stands in the background with other officials on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem as the First Lady stands in the background with other officials on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

A United Nations panel of experts concluded in October 2015 that the Saudi-led coalition had committed “grave violations” of civilians’ human rights. They include indiscriminate attacks; targeting markets, a camp for displaced Yemenis, and humanitarian aid warehouses; and intentionally preventing the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The panel was also concerned that the coalition considered civilian neighborhoods, including Marra and Sadah, as legitimate strike zones. The International Committee of the Red Cross documented 100 attacks on hospitals.

Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions prohibits the targeting of civilians. It provides that parties to a conflict “shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”

Saudi Arabia is also engaging in serious individual human rights violations. In January 2016, the Saudi government executed 47 people, including a prominent pacifist Shia cleric, who had been a leader of the 2011 Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia. Many of those executed were tortured during their detention and denied due process. Most were beheaded.

This horrifies us when ISIS does it. Yet State Department spokesman John Kirby protested weakly, “We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential in working through differences.”

Also in January 2016, Palestinian artist and poet Ashraf Fayadh, a Saudi citizen whose family is from Gaza, was sentenced to death by beheading. His alleged crimes: “apostasy,” or renouncing Islam, and photographing women. “Throughout this whole process,” Amnesty International UK found, “Ashraf was denied access to a lawyer, a clear violation of international human rights law.”

Both Saudi Arabia and the United States are parties to the Geneva Conventions, which define as grave breaches willful killing, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and torture or inhuman treatment. Grave breaches are considered war crimes.

Also prohibited are “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

Although neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia is party to the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, that statute sets forth standard aider and abettor liability provisions. It says that an individual can be convicted of war crimes if he or she “aids, abets or otherwise assists” in the commission or attempted commission of the crime, “including providing the means for its commission.”

The U.S. government is the primary supplier of Saudi weapons. In November 2015, the U.S. sold $1.29 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. It included more than 10,000 bombs, munitions, and weapons parts manufactured by Raytheon and Boeing, as well as bunker busters, and laser-guided and “general purpose” bombs.

A month earlier, the United States had approved a $11.25 billion sale of combat ships to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. also provides intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition. During the past five years, the U.S. government has sold the Saudis $100 billion worth of arms. These sales have greatly enriched U.S. defense contractors.

Why has the United States “usually looked the other way or issued carefully calibrated warnings in human rights reports as the Saudi royal family cracked down on dissent and free speech and allowed its elite to fund Islamic extremists,” in the words of New York Times’ David Sanger? “In return,” Sanger writes, “Saudi Arabia became America’s most dependable filling station, a regular supplier of intelligence, and a valuable counterweight to Iran.” Saudi Arabia, and close U.S. ally Israel, opposed the Iran nuclear deal.

In April 2015, the U.S. government prevented nine Iranian ships loaded with relief supplies from reaching Yemen. President Barack Obama also sent an aircraft carrier to the area to enforce the Saudi embargo on outside supplies. According to UN estimates, 21 million people lack basic services, and over 1.5 million have been displaced. UNICEF notes that six million people don’t have enough food.

Moreover, the U.S. government seeks to prevent scrutiny of Saudi human rights abuses in Yemen. In October 2015, the United States blocked a UN Security Council sanctions committee proposal that would have required the committee’s chair to contact “all relevant parties to the conflict and stress their responsibility to respect and uphold international humanitarian law and human rights law.”

The U.S. government is also violating domestic law by providing the Saudis with military aid. The Leahy Law prohibits U.S. assistance to foreign security forces or military officers “if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, for whom the law was named, told Foreign Policy: “The reports of civilian casualties from Saudi air attacks in densely populated areas [in Yemen] compel us to ask if these operations, supported by the United States, violate” the Leahy Law.

Furthermore, 22 U.S.C. section 2304 provides that “no security assistance may be provided to any government which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

The Arms Trade Treaty obligates member states to monitor exports of weapons and make sure they do not end up being used to commit human rights abuses. Although the U.S. has not ratified the treaty, we have signed it. Under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a signatory is prohibited from taking action inconsistent with the object and purpose of the treaty.

The U.S. government should immediately halt arms transfers and military support to Saudi Arabia and support an independent investigation into U.S. arms transfers and war crimes in Yemen. The United States must stop participating in and call for an end to the de facto blockade so that humanitarian assistance can reach those in need, engage in diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty.

In an interesting twist, the Saudis contributed $10 million to the Clinton Foundation before Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State. In 2011, the year after the State Department had documented myriad serious human rights violations by Saudi Arabia, Hillary Clinton oversaw a $29 billion sale of advanced fighter jets to the Saudis, declaring it was in our national interest.

The deal was “a top priority” for Secretary Clinton, according to Andrew Shapiro, an assistant secretary of state. Two months before the deal was clinched, Boeing, manufacturer of one of the fighter jets the Saudis sought to acquire, contributed $900,000 to the Clinton Foundation.

Hillary Clinton now says the U.S should pursue “closer strategic cooperation” with Saudi Arabia.

Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. See This article first appeared on TeleSUR []

8 comments for “US Abets Saudi War Crimes in Yemen

  1. Abbybwood
    January 26, 2016 at 02:25

    Yet in tonight’s “Democrat Town Hall” in Iowa on CNN we will not hear any questions from the audience (admittedly vetted by CNN) about war crimes by the United States in Yemen, in Ukraine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan or in any other areas of the planet that the American people are not privy to.

    U.S/Turkish/Israeli/Saudi/Qatar/Bahrain. “material support for ISIS”? You won’t hear of it on CNN, FOX or MSNBC.

    The American people are being PLAYED by a U.S. government/CIA/NSA controlled mass media propaganda machine and are not being told the TRUTH about U.S. government military/economic intervention for global hegemonic military CONTROL.

    The American people and the rest of the people on Earth are being PLAYED. And NO candidate for president will EVER tell us this.

    THOUSANDS of innocent human beings are being MURDERED AND MAIMED and their homes and communities are being demolished by abject EVIL!!!! With American TAX DOLLARS!!!!!

    WHO will tell the world the TRUTH?!


    For without the TRUTH none of us can ever be truly FREE!!

    Not to hammer the religious home, but according to the Bible Jesus said,, “Seek ye the TRUTH and the TRUTH shall set ye FREE.”

    • Peter Loeb
      January 26, 2016 at 06:31


      My Dad was a political functionary (now often called a “consultant”,
      sometimes “spokesperson for…”) and before the current US electoral
      campaign we all knew that this would be essential to all the
      strategies. To readers of Consortium and similar sources
      foreign policy is crucial. It comes up somewhat lamely now and
      then (Lybia, Syria) but the central focus remains what Hillary said
      last week, Bernie Sanders new health plan (it is not “new” at all but
      a rephrasing HR 672 for which many of fought nationwide but which
      was opposed by President Obama, his point man Rahm Emmanuel
      and the donors to the Obama campaigns by “big Pharma”
      and the “Medical-Industrial Complex” resulting in their profits
      being key cncerns (the Conyers bill was introduced in several Congresses
      and Senator Edward Kennedy also authored a bill which was
      born to die as he was a minority of the relevant Senate Committee
      (and this bill’s death in “referred to Committee”) was immediate,
      painless, and noticed by no one).

      And on an on. How many jobs will be gained or lost? Who in
      the GOP will take on the armaments lobby?

      There is a history of this kind of campaigning going back hundreds
      of years in the US.

      No one talks about deaths, dispossessions, murders, crimes
      in Yemen. Or Palestine. (To do so would be, of course,

      The important thing for Consortium and for likeminded
      sources for us is to document what is really happening
      in order to provide us with the vital knowledge base once
      one of these foreign policy disasters becomes the
      next US President.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. elmerfudzie
    January 26, 2016 at 00:04

    It is a futile effort and way too late, pointing fingers at present day middle east oligarchs and or their religious supporters or mullahs, particularly when alleging war crimes . All interested parties should have come to the realization by now, that this cross border societal breakdown (color revolutions, religious warring and the Arab spring) have more to do with the last one hundred years of recent middle east history as opposed to the open secret that ISIS is a western Occident (including Israel) Intel agency created entity. Current mini-wars directly relate to Anglo-Imperialism promoted and completely controlled by those international corporations who refine crude oil (at first it was Standard Oil). The very foundation of the House of Saud, it’s power and wealth, came to prominence on the heels of that old and tiresomely familiar, British-American, concoction to divide and then conquer. Done in the name of and adoration to an ancient triune god; Profit, Plundering and Power. The western worlds corporate single minded determination to extract raw materials using slavery and simultaneously recognizing-appointing political leaders, literally out of thin air, their descendents who now represent GCC countries. Let’s examine the British inspired and newly created boundaries between neighboring countries (circa, early nineteenth century), the final geographic contours of which resemble something designed by a draftsman’s pencil rather than historical precedence. Surely a creation of the logical and pernicious Anglo-American mindset. Never mind the indigenous linguistic, cultural, ethnic, tribal and or racial, even river-way, divides that were in existence, previous to the western Conquistadors arrival! Just look at a desktop globe of the world and find the borderline configurations in North African countries, surely CONSORTIUMNEWS readers must be asking themselves, how this straight north south or east-west boundaries came into existence? for example; Egypt, Libya or Algeria? It’s all coming home to roost now and all the blame clearly rests on international corporations and their private exploits.

  3. Zachary Smith
    January 25, 2016 at 22:47

    My thanks to Marjorie Cohn for writing this essay, even though it is positively painful to read.

    The evil being done by Obama and his nasty buddies is even worse than mentioned above.

    UNICEF reported in October that 537,000 Yemeni children were at risk of severe malnutrition nationwide, while Alexi O’Brien, reporting for Al-Jazeera in September, noted that the United Nations warned that 96,000 children were “starving and close to death” in the port city of al-Hodeidah, and an additional 8,000 children faced starvation in Aden in 2016.

    This is not one of those times I’m proud to be a citizen of the U.S.

  4. Ahmad Negar
    January 25, 2016 at 18:28

    Even good Journalists of western, do not see what is happening under surface of catasterific destruction of Yemen.
    Do you trace events for last 40 to 60 years around the water way, and connections between them: Creation of small and smmaller countries around the strategic water way; Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan’s, and now Yeman( s?), and depopulation all of them by famine, bomb and ethnic division and hatred, destruction of basic infrastructure .
    Does Ale-Saud dictates this long term Strategy? When I look at clear line of events, Ale Saud is a pawn.

  5. Abe
    January 25, 2016 at 17:16

    It is curious to note that in pursuit of its criminal goals in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been using weapons that were bought from the UK in 2012. Moreover, it keeps on restocking its supply of deadly British-made weapons. For this reason, at the end of last year, leading British diplomats and lawyers warned David Cameron that he was running the risk of facing an international tribunal for war crimes due to the fact that the weapons that his government supplies to Saudi Arabia are being extensively used against civilian targets in Yemen.

    […] days after David Cameron’s statements about his attempt to “initiate a political process in Yemen,” and remarks that “there could be no military solution in Yemen,” the data released by the government showed that UK officials approved the sale of a billion pounds worth of bombs to Saudi Arabia.

    Under these circumstances the only natural question is: Will international human rights organizations and the international community as a whole, all those who failed to say a resounding “NO” to Western military interventions in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, that were only profitable for arms sellers, carry on watching silently the destruction of Yemen? […] Do we ever bring to justice those responsible for such massacres? Or will we rather allow politicians, the likes of Cameron, to call for peace, while selling huge amounts of deadly weapons behind our backs with impunity?

    Who is Responsible for the Suffering of Yemen?
    By Martin Berger

  6. Ben Russell
    January 25, 2016 at 15:11

    Really good except where you say what’s happening in Yemen is part of a ‘regional struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia’. That fits Obama’s narrative, but is not proven. It’s a U.S., Saudi, UAE etc. invasion of Yemen

  7. Bill Bodden
    January 25, 2016 at 14:14

    Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions prohibits the targeting of civilians. and … a clear violation of international human rights law.” and The Leahy Law prohibits U.S. assistance to foreign security forces or military officers … and Furthermore, 22 U.S.C. section 2304 provides …

    People, including presidents who continually invoke “no one is above the law,” and who are “exceptional” and above the law ignore these pesky proscriptions and the Constitution when it suits them.

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