In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and several Sunni allies launched a massive air campaign against Iran-aligned Shiite Houthi rebels who had overrun much of Yemen a year earlier. The United States gave its full support to this campaign, which aimed at rolling back rebel military gains in Yemen.
Washington’s Support for the Saudi Coalition in Yemen
Washington provided training and logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition as well as selling billions of dollars in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two main members of the anti-Houthi coalition.
In support of the Saudi-led war campaign, the administration of then-President Barack Obama signed off an arms sale worth $1.3 billion in precision-guided bombs and bomb parts to the Saudis and their allies.
US officials argued that American weapons, training and intelligence assistance would help the Saudis and their allies avoid causing more civilian casualties in Yemen. However actions proved otherwise.
Sharp Increase in Civilian Casualties in Yemen
Civilian casualties sharply increased in Yemen with the Saudi-led military intervention. According to an estimate from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an independent monitoring group, more than 127,000 people have been killed in the war, including 13,500 civilians in targeted attacks by the Saudi-led coalition.
In the first 18 months of the Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels, human rights groups linked US bombs to attacks on homes, residential buildings, factories, warehouses, a cultural center, an agricultural complex, a primary school and other non-military sites.
US Officials May be Held Accountable for War Crimes in Yemen
According to the New York Times, concerns are now rising among US officials that they could be held accountable for war crimes in Yemen due to their role in facilitating arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Administration officials fear that they could be arrested while on trips overseas for war crimes for ignoring the harm caused by the US weapons in Yemen.
In 2016, the legal office of the State Department in the Obama administration issued a memo warning that US officials, including the secretary of state, could be charged with war crimes for their role in arming the Saudi coalition.
Fearing accountability, the Obama administration acted on the warning and took a tougher line on the delivery of weapons to Saudi Arabia. In December of this year, Obama blocked a shipment of precision-guided bombs that he had agreed to sell to the Saudis.
Trump Resumed Obama’s Weapons Shipments to Gulf Allies
A few months after Obama left the White House, his successor Donald Trump, however, delivered the bombs his predecessor had halted. The Trump administration even sought to advance more arms sales in billions of dollars to its Gulf allies, but the shipments were blocked by the Congress for nearly two years.
As the deliveries of $8.1 billion of arms sales to members of the Saudi-led coalition were blocked pending congressional approval, the Trump administration came up with a new strategy to circumvent the Congress by declaring an emergency over Iran, which prompted a review by the inspector general.
Since April 2019, Trump has used his veto power to prevent lawmakers from withdrawing US military support and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies.
The Laws of War Still Apply
Under the laws of war, all countries are prohibited from approving arms sales in cases where these weapons can be used to commit attacks against civilians. As this is the case in the Yemen war, the possibility of holding American officials accountable for war crimes looks high.
Lawsuits can be filed against US officials for alleged war crimes in Yemen before courts in sovereign countries. The charges can also be brought in an international tribunal if one were set up to investigate atrocities in the Yemen war.
Earlier this month, the UN issued a report on atrocities in Yemen and asked the Security Council to bring actions by all parties in the conflict to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible war crimes prosecution.
The ICC Investigation into the US, UK and France
The ICC has already authorized an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by the US and other forces in Afghanistan in March, a move that prompted the Trump administration to blacklist ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and her top aide.
In September 2019, a panel of UN investigators concluded in a report that the US, along with Britain and France, were likely complicit in war crimes in Yemen because of continued weapons sales and intelligence support to the Saudis and their allies.
The report said third states that have influence on Yemen’s warring parties – including the US, Britain, France and Iran – “may be held responsible for providing aid or assistance for the commission of international law violations”.