The United States failed to properly assess civilian casualties linked to American-made weapons used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds, as President Joe Biden is set to visit the Middle East and meet with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The visit is reportedly part of a broader reorientation in the U.S.-Saudi relationship: a senior U.S. official said that “both sides have decided that for the sake of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East, we need to move past” U.S. concerns about the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But the United States cannot move past the civilian casualties inflicted by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which continues to receive U.S. military assistance, without a thorough investigation and accountability. Nor can U.S. officials continue to claim that human rights are a consideration in weapons sales if civilian casualties linked to American-made weapons are not investigated and considered as part of future sale decisions.
Earlier in June, the New York Times reported that the GAO had completed, but not publicly released, its report on civilian casualties from American-made weapons in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Released internally at the end of April, some officials “worried that the State Department could hide important findings from the public” through the clearance process. Now public, the report offers additional insight into the U.S. military’s support for the coalition in Yemen. The United States’ role in the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, outlined in this report, threatens to undermine the Biden administration’s stated commitment to human rights.
At the core of the report lies the revelation that the Department of Defense (DoD) and State Department have not adequately assessed whether U.S. military support has been linked to civilian casualties in Yemen, a fact that should be deeply troubling. The Arms Export Control Act requires the State Department to report promptly to Congress when it receives information of U.S.-provided arms or services used for unauthorized purposes. During the GAO investigation, State Department officials stated that “they consider civilian harm” and how weapons are used when making decisions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Yet the report shows that both DoD and the State Department lack internal procedures to investigate how U.S. weapons are used, and whether they are implicated in human rights violations. Defense Department officials told the GAO that “there is no mechanism to track how foreign partners use defense articles” and services sold to foreign partners by the U.S. government. Without these procedures in place, it is unclear how human rights considerations are included in decisions to sell U.S. weapons.
Another troubling finding is that DoD has not investigated whether its programs designed to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen actually have been effective. The U.S. approach to civilian casualties resulting from coalition airstrikes in Yemen has been to offer training and assistance on targeting and the laws of war. Yet aside from one Air Force assessment that covered the period from October 2017 through February 2019, DoD officials indicated they were “not aware of any evaluations of DoD advising or other support to Saudi Arabia and UAE,” according to the GAO report. Indeed, the officials told the GAO “that the vast majority of Saudi operations are done without any oversight or visibility by U.S. advisors due to policy, legal, or congressional limitations on the scope of DoD’s involvement.”
The report further reveals the depth and nature of America’s support for the coalition in Yemen, providing a comprehensive account of the military support the United States has provided to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It concludes that DoD “administered at least $54.6 billion of military support to Saudi Arabia and the [UAE] from fiscal years 2015 through 2021,” including weapons as well as training, maintenance, and other services.
In February 2021, Biden announced he would end U.S. “support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” The United States continued, however, to provide “defensive” weapons, including maintenance services and spare parts for Saudi aircrafts. A recent investigation detailed “how U.S. support to coalition members’ air forces has continued at an astonishing rate and extends more broadly than publicly disclosed.” DoD’s “total package approach” to arms sales means that ongoing support services and parts are typically included in the sale of weapons. The report’s findings highlight the significance of this type of military support: the value of U.S.-provided equipment maintenance, training, and support equipment (across all platforms) during this period, for example, was greater than the value of all the aircraft sold through Foreign Military Sales.
The GAO report comes amidst a series of allegations that the United States has failed to adequately investigate, report, and address civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations. In Yemen, this failure is particularly egregious, since a significant amount of information about these strikes is publicly available. Investigations by CNN and Mwatana for Human Rights have linked remnants of U.S.-made bombs to the sites of airstrikes that killed civilians; Human Rights Watch investigations of an August 2018 bus strike and an October 2016 strike on a funeral hall found that these were “apparent war crime[s].”
In light of these findings, the GAO recommends that the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs of the State Department should develop “specific guidance” to investigate whether Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used U.S.-made weapons in Yemen in violation of the terms of the arms sales. The report further recommends that the Secretary of Defense develop guidance on how DoD should implement its own policy on reporting whether U.S. weapons have been used in Yemen for illegitimate purposes or against non-military targets.
It is deeply troubling that these agencies do not appear to have the appropriate processes in place to investigate reports that U.S. weapons have been used for unauthorized purposes in violation of arms sales agreements or the laws of war. The GAO report raises questions about how the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which must sign off on Foreign Military Sales, has incorporated considerations of civilian harm into arms sales decisions. These questions are even more pressing in the face of Biden’s upcoming visit to the region, and highlight the clash between the administration’s commitment to human rights and its strategic objectives.
Without proper procedures in place to investigate and report civilian casualties linked to American-made weapons, the Biden administration’s commitment to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy will ring hollow.