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Saudi Arabia Finally Admits to Using Cluster Bombs in Yemen–After Pattern of Denials

On Monday, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons that following the UK’s own analysis, the Saudi-led coalition has now admitted to using UK manufactured cluster munitions in Yemen. Mr. Fallon heralded the “transparent admission” by the coalition, and added, “we therefore welcome their announcement today that they will no longer use cluster munitions.” Many news outlets ran a headline focused on the Saudi-led coalition’s statement that it would stop using cluster munitions in Yemen (including Al Jazeera, Fox, ReutersUPI).

Lost in the news coverage is the Saudi-led coalition’s  consistent pattern of denial of using cluster munitions.

So, let’s take a walk down memory lane. At the end, I will discuss the significance of this pattern of denial for future policy options on the part of the United States and the United Kingdom.

At the heart of Monday’s revelations were allegations of the use of cluster munitions by Amnesty International, and here’s a key point: Riyadh previously assured the UK government that it had not used cluster munitions in response to Amnesty’s allegations. A Joint Parliamentary report in September 2016 stated:

“In response to the Amnesty International report, the then Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons that the Government had had assurances from Saudi Arabia that cluster munitions had not been used in the conflict in Yemen….”

As recently as last month, the Saudi-led coalition spokesman Major General Ahmed Asseri specifically denied use of UK cluster munitions in Yemen. He told Rohit Kachroo of ITV News:

“If you are talking about UK cluster bomb, this is obsolete. We do not use it. And we already destruct the storage that we have.”

When presented with photographs of the munitions in Yemen, he told ITVNews:

“This is manipulation. This is what we face in the media, people manipulate these kinds of photos. If we used it we would say we used it…why would we deny it?”

On Monday the Saudi-led coalition’s official statement “confirms that it decided to cease usage” of cluster munitions. In contrast, in November 2016, a reporter for the Intercept asked Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, “Will you continue to use cluster weapons in Yemen?” The Ambassador literally laughed off the question, and remarked, “This is like the question, ‘Will you stop beating your wife?’”

In March 2016, Samuel Oakford reported that the Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United Nations had told reporters:

“We do not use cluster bombs in Yemen, period.”

See also my exchange on Twitter with Oakford yesterday evening.

In June 2016, in response to a question from InnerCity Press the Ambassador to the UN again categorically denied use of cluster munitions by the coalition in Yemen:

“We have not used cluster bombs in the conflict in Yemen. … I can assure you that the actions of the Saudi-led coalition that we have not used the cluster bombs.”

In January 2016, Gen. Asseri told CNN’s Nic Robertson that the coalition has not used cluster munitions in Saana, Yemen, but admitted to using a cluster munition (CBU-105) only “once” back in April 2015.

Notably, back in May 2015, the Kingdom rejected reports that it had used cluster munitions in April of that year. At the time, Gen. Asseri also said:

“We are not using cluster bombs at all.”

* * *

This pattern of denial is important for several reasons. Let’s consider three. First, as reflected in the House of Commons discussion on Monday, many British politicians (including in Joint Parliamentary Committee reports) have called for an independent international body to investigate allegations of war crimes in Yemen. The UN-Secretary General and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have done so as well. The UK government, however, essentially insists that the Saudi-led coalition can be trusted to investigate itself. Second, many governments, including the US and UK, are bound by international obligations and domestic policies that can preclude aiding and assisting a State that engages in serious violations of the law of armed conflict–and, in order, to meet those obligations assisting States generally need to have confidence that the foreign State’s assurances are credible. Finally, is the thorny area of individual criminal liability for aiding and abetting war crimes, which I have discussed previously at Just Security. I ended that discussion with mitigation measures that officials might adopt to avoid such liability. The effectiveness of such measures, however, will likely depend on the credibility of assurances by the recipient State.

These three implications transcend the issue of cluster munitions and, indeed, nothing I have written here suggests that the use of cluster bombs would have necessarily been unlawful. It is the pattern of denial that should raise heightened concern for States and policymakers who are rightfully worried about the Saudi-led coalition’s operations in Yemen. In light of Monday’s acknowledgement, this pattern of denial should also inform future media coverage of these issues.

[Additional Resources:
Full statement by UK Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon and Q&A in House of Commons.
Full statement by the Saudi-led coalition.
Be sure to check out Just Security‘s complete coverage of the US and UK supported, Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen.]

Image: Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon making a statement in the House of Commons, on the war in Yemen, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016: Press Association via AP Images

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About the Author

is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. He served as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16). You can follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).