As Biden travels to Saudi Arabia, the GAO report questions US involvement in Yemeni deaths

A question hanging over President Biden’s Middle East trip next week, particularly his stop in Saudi Arabia, is how complicit in the deaths of Yemeni civilians are US-made weapons.

During the trip, Biden will discuss the United Nations-brokered ceasefire in Yemen, which White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said has “resulted in the most peaceful period there since the war began seven years ago.”

But so long and brutal War was fueled by the supply of US arms to the Saudi-led coalition. Reports have documented massive civilian deaths. Last year, the United States pledged to stop supporting coalition offensive operations, including through arms sales.

But a report by the Government Accountability Office, a congressional monitoring agency, raises troubling questions about how seriously State Department and Defense Department officials are taking that promise.

From 2015, the United States provided military support to the coalition, the report said, which was trying to restore the Yemeni government after an Iran-backed Houthi military offensive took the capital Sana’a.

By 2021, the Pentagon approved $54.6 billion in military assistance to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to the report. More than a third ($18.3 billion) was for missiles, including airborne, ground-launched and sea-launched variants. Planes, ships, ammunition and weapons, all of which can be used offensively, were also included.

According to UN estimates, more than 18,000 civilians were killed or injured in 23,000 airstrikes during this period.

Questions remain about American complicity in these dead and injured because US officials cannot define the terms of the discussion — or war.

“In February 2021, the President announced his intention to end U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen,” Jason Bair, GAO director of international affairs and trade, said in an email. “While state officials told us they try to distinguish between ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ weapons, they have no specific definitions of ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ weapons. ”

When the US government cannot distinguish between offensive and defensive weapons, that’s a fundamental problem that creates other problems.

“Without clear definitions of ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ weapons, it may be difficult for the State Department to implement the President’s desire” to end support for offensive weapons, Bair added. He noted that “the state’s assessment is based on the INTENDED use of the weapons, which may or may not correspond to actual use. State and DOD do not have a comprehensive picture of how U.S. aid was actually used in the war in Yemen.”

There is another problem with terms. Pentagon policy prohibits the “misuse or unauthorized disclosure” of defense equipment and services, but these terms are not defined.

“The Department of Defense and state officials both said that use causing civilian harm would not necessarily constitute ‘abuse,'” reads the GAO report.

While American officials do not know how much damage American materials have caused in Yemen, the United Nations noted that “US-origin defense items may have been used in strikes that caused significant civilian damage in a manner contrary to international humanitarian law “. watchdog reported.

Curiously, US officials have not attempted to determine what damage their military stockpiles have done.

“Despite multiple reports that airstrikes and other attacks by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates caused significant civilian damage in Yemen,” the report said, “the DOD has not reported and the state was unable to provide evidence that.” it has investigated incidents of possible unauthorized use of equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.”

The Pentagon “nor has not fully measured the extent to which its advice and training has facilitated civilian harm reduction in Yemen,” GAO noted.

Phyllis Bennis, program director at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, says that “the US military has no intention of pursuing — let alone attempting to seriously reduce — the civilian casualties it is causing in the so-called global war on terror . It addresses the legacies of racism, xenophobia and indeed cruelty in these wars.”

When asked to comment on the GAO report, the Pentagon went to the state.

“We have been working with the Saudi-led coalition for several years to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and damage,” the state’s public affairs office said via email. “The Saudis have received training from the US forces on the law of armed conflict, air-to-ground targeting procedures and best practices for reducing the risk of civilian casualties. The Saudi government has taken some steps to improve its targeting processes and put in place mechanisms to investigate alleged incidents involving civilian casualties, although we recognize that there is still work to be done. …

“To truly address the issue of civilian casualties in Yemen,” the statement continued, “we must also end the types of violence that have been responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties in recent years, such as shelling, small arms fire and landmines.” Unfortunately, we have seen that the latter persists even during this current UN ceasefire.”

How GAO’s findings affect Biden’s trip and ongoing US-Saudi Arabian relations depends to some extent on Congress, according to Akshaya Kumar, head of crisis representation at Human Rights Watch.

“Now they have a GAO report that shows oversight is inadequate and incomplete,” she said. “So we really hope that Congress then takes over the mantle again to pressure the administration to reconsider its approach.”

While American officials do not know how much damage American materials have caused in Yemen, the United Nations noted that “US-origin defense items may have been used in strikes that caused significant civilian damage in a manner contrary to international humanitarian law ‘, GAO reported.

For Human Rights Watch, which has published numerous reports on the tragedy in Yemen, the solution is not complex.

“The US government … should just stop selling all arms to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at least until these abusive actions in Yemen end,” Kumar said. “Just end all gun sales.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/07/08/biden-yemen-gao-report-arms-saudi-arabia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_politics As Biden travels to Saudi Arabia, the GAO report questions US involvement in Yemeni deaths

James Brien

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