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March 08, 2016

Secretary Kerry Should Support Accountability for Violations by Saudi Forces in Yemen

U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has been well-documented. As the conflict rages on, the civilian death toll continues to rise, and effective accountability measures for violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law are lacking.

On Friday, Human Rights First joined seventeen organizations in a letter to Secretary Kerry urging the United States to support the immediate establishment of an independent mechanism to investigate the human rights situation in Yemen during the current, 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council. The Council had failed to agree on such a mechanism in its last session—in part due to U.S. opposition.

The State Department spokesperson, John Kirby, indicates that the United States has “long made clear our concerns about the reports of civilian casualties” in Yemen, but continues to offer its support to the Saudi regime. The Obama Administration persistently depicts Saudi Arabia as a close ally and an important partner in the fight against violent extremism. Secretary Kerry called Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir “an old friend of mine” when they met in February, and he thanked the government for its “solid efforts” to combat ISIS.

And this close relationship is backed up with serious military support: The United States sold $90 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2014, including fighter aircraft, helicopters, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs and armored vehicles, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The U.S. has also shared intelligence to support Riyadh’s targeting decisions in Yemen. In November 2015, the Obama Administration announced a $1.29 billion U.S. arms sale that will supply 18,440 bombs and 1,500 warheads to Saudi Arabia to replenish their stocks.

The U.S. government has avoided condemnation and opposed investigations into allegations of indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure by Saudi forces in Yemen, not only because of the U.S. military aid to Riyadh, but also because of its own lack of transparency and accountability on the extraterritorial use of lethal force in armed conflict.

When the United States first ramped up its use of drones for targeted killings, rights groups raised concerns that the U.S. approach would become the model for the world. If Washington failed to respect international law and clarify its legal rationales about when, where, and how lethal force could be used extraterritorially, what would keep other countries from following suit? The first international expert report on drones in 2010 highlighted concerns about an “accountability vacuum.” These deep-seated fears have come to fruition as international accountability mechanisms have been blocked from scrutinizing Saudi Arabia for its reported violations of international humanitarian law.

The Obama Administration indicated on March 4 that it is preparing to release a redacted version of its drones “playbook,” otherwise known as the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG), and announced on March 7 that it would release data on civilian and combatant casualties from U.S. drone strikes since 2009. Human Rights First has been calling for years for greater transparency on the legal and policy framework for the U.S. drone program. Releasing the PPG with minimal redactions would be a long overdue step in the right direction. It would also put the U.S. on more solid footing to engage with its repressive allies on their practices.

President Obama only has eleven months to solidify his legacy on targeted killings and to put in place policies and procedures that will be inherited by his successor. To lead by example and send a message to the world, the administration should: halt arms sales that facilitate violations by Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen; increase transparency and accountability for U.S. targeted killings to ensure compliance with international law; and support international efforts to bring accountability to the conduct of the conflict in Yemen.