With New U.S. Arms Sale Pending–What Happened to Saudi Assurances on Civilian Casualties in Yemen?

The State Department is reportedly reviewing a multi-billion-dollar deal between Saudi Arabia and the arms manufacturer Raytheon. Should the State Department decide to license the sale, Congress would then have thirty days to block it. In June 2017 a similar, smaller arms agreement was approved, predicated on Saudi assurances to change procedures and undertake a large $750 million U.S.-run training program to reduce civilian casualties. Nearly a year on from that agreement, and with another one pending, now is a good time to step back and evaluate the efficacy of any such safeguards put in place. That analysis shows that civilian casualties from Saudi-coalition bombing have actually increased, not decreased. This raises serious concerns about Saudi Arabia’s ability and willingness to reduce civilian deaths even as a major new arms deal is under review.

The munitions from this new arms sale would doubtless be used in Yemen, where, for the past three years, Saudi-led coalition forces have been conducting a massive bombing campaign that has caused thousands of civilian casualties and been widely condemned as violating international humanitarian law. Although not directly engaged in the combat, the United States support has been integral to the campaign, providing refueling, intelligence, technical support, and munitions to the Saudi Air Force. This involvement raises serious legal and policy concerns for the United States. As described in previous Just Security articles, America’s close support of Saudi-led forces that have likely committed war crimes may violate international law and could potentially expose US citizens to criminal or civil liability. It also may undermine long-term US interests and national security. As former senior CIA official Bruce Riedel observed in a New Yorker Radio Hour interview last month, “Not only are many Yemenis going to nurse a grudge against Saudi Arabia for the rest of their life, many of them are going to blame America. We’re stoking the fires of a generation that’s going to want revenge.” To much of the world, the approval of a massive new arms deal would likely represent de facto American approval of Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen.

The Saudi Air Force is only capable of functioning effectively with extensive American support. According to Mr. Riedel, “We are an enabler of the war. If the United States decided today that it was going to cut off supplies, spare parts, munitions, intelligence, and everything else to the Royal Saudi Air Force, it would be grounded tomorrow.” This reliance makes the United States’ lack of substantive oversight all the more troubling. Speaking to a Senate committee in March, General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command, admitted that the United States does not track whether US-refueled Saudi planes or US-manufactured munitions are used in the bombing of civilians. Although aware of the bombing of Yemeni civilians, it is unclear what the United States military is doing to address the issue.

SEN. WARREN: “General Votel, does CENTCOM track the purpose of the missions it is refueling? In other words, where a U.S.-refueled aircraft is going, what targets it strikes, and the result of the mission?”

GEN. VOTEL: “Senator, we do not.”

SEN. WARREN: “General Votel, when you receive reports like this from credible media organizations or outside observers, is CENTCOM able to tell whether U.S. fuel or U.S. munitions were used as part of that strike?”

GEN. VOTEL: “Senator, I don’t believe we are.”

In June 2017, a smaller arms deal between Raytheon and Saudi Arabia narrowly avoided being blocked by the Senate, with a final vote of 53-47. The deal was smoothed by Saudi Arabia’s commitment to spend $750 million on US-provided training intended to reduce civilian casualties. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister also committed to significant safeguards to ensure the reduction and minimization of civilian deaths, including an expanded no-strike list, improved internal procedures, and the presence of US military advisers in the Saudi air operations control center. Virginia Senator Mark Warner, one of five Democrats who voted in favor of the deal, invoked these new assurances at the time, telling the New York Times, “I am aware of the concerns with Saudi Arabia’s engagement in Yemen, including in operations that have led to civilian casualties. I share these concerns and believe that the Saudis have a responsibility to conduct their operations carefully—including engaging with the U.S. on increased training.”

Since the training and safeguards began, however, the Saudi Air Force appears to be killing civilians at an increased rate. According to data provided by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), based at the University of Sussex, since the approval of the prior arms deal and commitment to safeguards in mid-June 2017, there have been roughly 1,550 reported civilian deaths caused by Saudi-coalition airstrikes. In the first half of 2017, before the new safeguards were put in place, roughly 503 civilians were reported killed. Since the beginning of 2018, 664 have reportedly died. Following the June arms deal, more civilians are being killed in less time, while the rate of civilian-killing strikes has fallen only slightly when taken as a percentage of total bombing. In the first half of 2017, roughly 11% of all reported strikes resulted in civilian fatalities, while in 2018 about 9% have. Thus, despite Saudi assurances, the bombing campaign has on the whole become deadlier for civilians, not less.

Getting accurate information about the conflict in Yemen is extremely difficult, of course. ACLED’s information is sourced from news reports and on the ground accounts and so may overestimate or underestimate civilian deaths. Even so, there is no reason to think that this inaccuracy should vary substantially between the first half of 2017 and the first half of 2018, thereby accounting for the 141 additional deaths. The organization’s data should give us a reasonably accurate understanding of any trend in civilian deaths caused by the coalition.

What’s more, this information is consistent with anecdotal and other accounts provided by the United Nations and news media. At the end of March 2018, Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported that “the number of civilian casualties dramatically increased during the past six months,” peaking in December 2017 with Saudi airstrikes responsible for over sixty percent of the civilian causalities caused in Yemen.

A report by the UN Expert Panel, which is mandated by the Security Council, highlights several Saudi strikes that the panel concludes likely violated international humanitarian law. These cases include a September 2017 strike on a remote family compound in Hajjah that killed three and injured sixteen, fourteen of whom were women or children. UN investigators found a tail fin from a U.S.-made Paveway guided bomb at the scene of that attack. According to the panel, the remote location of the compound means the strike was likely intentional. The experts could find no evidence of enemy combatants at the residences, but even if some were present, the strike still likely failed the proportionality and precautions requirements to protect civilians.

In another likely violation of international humanitarian law in November 2017, Saudi-led coalition forces bombed a night market in Sa’dah, killing thirty-one, including eight children. Although physical evidence was not recovered from the scene, the UN panel concluded that the damage was highly indicative of a precision-guided aircraft bomb. At the end of April, the New York Times reported that a wedding party was bombed in Sana, resulting in more than twenty killed and dozens injured. Debris from the bomb used in that strike indicates that it was manufactured by Raytheon, the company whose deal is currently under State Department review.

The continuing and widespread civilian casualties from Saudi bombing raises the possibility that the safeguards promised have not been implemented and that the promised training program has stalled or is ineffective. It is unclear how much of the $750 million has actually been spent on training to reduce civilian casualties or indeed if any has been spent at all. When asked about U.S. support and training of the Saudi Air Force, a CENTCOM spokesman told Just Security,

“We deployed liaisons to Saudi Arabia in part to share best practices with the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) and advise them on how to avoid civilian casualties. Consistent with U.S. law, existing agreements, and regulations, the liaisons also can respond to RSAF requests for information about threats to Saudi border security, and associated threat networks. Liaisons advise on best practices for aerial targeting processes. But liaisons are not involved in the specific selection of targets or prioritizing and matching responses for combat missions.”

Without better insight into the internal workings of the Saudi military, it is difficult say definitively whether the training and safeguards put in place last year are making a difference. In the meantime, we do know that civilian casualties caused by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes are rising. How this will impact Raytheon’s new arms deal remains to be seen. The last arms sale, however, faced a much tougher than expected vote in the Senate. Saudi assurances at the time to reduce civilian casualties likely helped it pass in the end. Given the shortcomings of the past year, this much larger deal must be subjected to even greater scrutiny.

Ryan Goodman contributed to this article.

Photo: U.S. Central Command Commander Army Gen. Joseph Votel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 9, 2017 alongside Lieutenant Generall Raymond Thomas (R), Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (Win McNamee/Getty Images) 

About the Author(s)

Isa Qasim

Legal Researcher at Just Security. He is a law student at Yale Law School and former Investment Associate at Bridgewater Associates.