When President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January, his administration will face a host of formidable challenges. Key among them is ending U.S. support for the military intervention in Yemen that is being led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The war in Yemen has become a global mark of shame. It is a spiraling humanitarian disaster threatening the lives of 24 million people who rely on some form of humanitarian aid. A peace process continues to falter, due to lack of significant international support, and because it fails to include key parties to the conflict.
Meanwhile, thousands of civilians have been killed, many in coalition airstrikes with U.S.-made weapons sold to the Saudis and the UAE, and others in U.S. raids and drone strikes. Coalition airstrikes have hit civilians and civilian objects, including weddings, funerals, schools, markets, and medical facilities. The Saudi- and UAE-led coalition, as well as other warring parties in Yemen including Ansar Allah (the Houthis), have committed grave violations of international law, yet there have been only farcical nods towards accountability. While the UAE withdrew most ground troops in 2019, it maintains some, has continued its air operations, and still supports about 90,000 Yemeni fighters, including by supplying them with weapons.
The Biden campaign promised to end U.S. support for the Saudi and Emirati-led intervention in Yemen. But they have yet to provide details on how they will do so, leaving reasons to be skeptical of just how far this shift will go.
One important signpost should be an open letter from 30 former Obama administration officials, published two years ago, calling for an end to that support. Many signatories have now been selected as Biden’s nominees for high-level roles in his administration, including Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The letter made clear that ending refueling for Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition planes carrying out military operations in Yemen — which the Trump administration halted a few days before its publication — was not enough. It called for “a suspension of all U.S. support for the campaign in Yemen,” along with “a clear demand for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, and increased U.S. investment in the high-level diplomacy needed to end this war.”
Yet if we have learned anything from the past 5 1/2 years, it is that “support” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The called-for diplomacy and backing for the peace process would be undercut if the same governments continue to sell weapons, ignore accountability, and otherwise undermine efforts to end the war.
Conditions that already apply to these sales have been ignored, failing to ensure better targeting or less harmful outcomes from the coalition. Any meaningful end to U.S. support must include suspending all U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, given the risk these weapons could be used to carry out further human rights abuses or war crimes. It should also include strong calls for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the coalition they lead to end unlawful attacks, credibly investigate those that have occurred, and take concrete steps to ensuring accountability and redress.
The U.N. Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen has repeatedly called for an end to arms transfers, which it says “help perpetuate the conflict.” This should include a halt to the Trump administration’s planned sale to the UAE of Reaper drones, F-35 aircraft, and other weapons, potentially worth a staggering $23 billion. It should also include halting the provision of spare parts and maintenance to military equipment already sold, intelligence sharing, and any other logistical support.
An end to U.S. support should also include an end to diplomatic measures that shield Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other coalition partners from scrutiny for their actions in Yemen. Instead, the new administration should recognize that no lasting peace is possible without a meaningful accounting for past crimes. Future diplomacy should ensure that respect for human rights is enshrined in any agreement. Moreover, efforts should ensure accountability for all parties to the conflict and redress for victims.
If the United States rejoins the U.N. Human Rights Council, it should do more to support accountability efforts through that body. In 2015 and 2016, the United States appeared to have undermined an effort at the Human Rights Council to establish an inquiry into abuses in Yemen. If Biden wants to prove that the United States has a genuine commitment to ending abuses in Yemen, he should start a new chapter in which the United States takes principled positions regarding human rights, accountability, and redress at the council.
Finally, as COVID-19 spreads in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis grows ever worse, the United States should push all warring parties to protect and ensure humanitarian-aid delivery, lift obstructions, and allow access to affected populations in all areas. It should also reconsider U.S. policy decisions that negatively impact the humanitarian situation. Recent news reports, for example, say the Trump administration plans to designate the Houthis as a terrorist group, a move that top U.N. officials, including Secretary-General António Guterres and humanitarian agencies have strongly opposed. Such a designation would make it far more difficult for humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen, which remain in need, and would negatively impact peace talks.
By the time Biden takes office, the United States will be close to entering its sixth year of support for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition in Yemen. That backing continued nearly unabated through the end of Obama’s term, except for pausing the sales of some precision-guided munitions — a move Trump easily reversed.
Not only should an incoming Biden administration do far better than revert to Obama-era policies and positions on Yemen by comprehensively ending support, but it should rethink U.S. policy on Yemen. Instead of accepting military support as the price for Saudi Arabia and the UAE supporting other U.S. interests, or focusing on the country solely as a source of threat, a new policy should be driven by the goals of lasting peace, and ensuring human rights for Yemenis. After so many missteps, achieving peace and stability in Yemen for the sake of Yemenis deserves to be an independent goal, rather than viewing the country solely through a security lens.
As Biden himself wrote this year, when his election was far from assured, “The next U.S. president will have to address the world as it is in January 2021, and picking up the pieces will be an enormous task … There will be no time to lose.” A 2018 U.S. public opinion poll, one of the few if not the only one on the war in Yemen, showed the majority of Americans want their country to end its complicity in this tragedy, and the Yemenis we know agree there is no time to waste — both countries have too much to lose.
One of the biggest lessons from Biden’s time as vice president should be to learn from the mistakes the U.S. has made in Yemen, and the catastrophic damage those errors continue to cause. Picking up those pieces will indeed be a formidable task—one that he won’t solve by incomplete, or half measures.