Despite 10,000 civilian casualties in Yemen — 13 per day — U.S. reaffirms support for Saudi Arabia

U.N. warns of "appalling levels of human despair" in Yemen, while the U.S. stands by its "key ally" Saudi Arabia

Published September 2, 2016 7:22PM (EDT)

Yemenis carry the body of a child they uncovered from under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sana'a Airport, Yemen on March 26, 2015  (AP/Hani Mohammed)
Yemenis carry the body of a child they uncovered from under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sana'a Airport, Yemen on March 26, 2015 (AP/Hani Mohammed)

A minimum of 10,000 civilians have been killed or wounded in the U.S.-backed war in Yemen, according to the U.N. humanitarian coordinator.

Since the Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015, there has been an average of 13 civilian casualties a day, according to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (The U.N. uses the word casualty to refer to both deaths and injuries.)

The U.N. and human rights organizations have thoroughly documented atrocities committed by the Western-backed coalition and have accused it of committing war crimes. Despite these reports, the U.S. continues to reaffirm its close alliance with its repressive Saudi ally and sell it weapons.

About 3,800 Yemeni civilians have been killed and more than 6,000 have been injured in the war, according to the U.N.

In August, the U.N. high commissioner released a report on the situation of human rights in Yemen. It revealed that at least 2.8 million Yemenis, including more than 400,000 families, have been forced to flee their homes because of the violence.

"The prolonged duration of the conflict has strongly heightened the disastrous risk of a systemic collapse of Yemen," wrote Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner. "The resilience of the Yemeni people has been stretched beyond human limits."

Before the war Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East. The bombing has destroyed significant parts of health infrastructure and exacerbated the already dire humanitarian situation. At least 7.6 million Yemenis, including 3 million women and children, suffer from malnutrition, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has estimated.

Al-Hussein concluded his report stressing, "The international community, in its full range of political, legal and civil forces, has a legal and moral duty to take urgent steps to alleviate the appalling levels of human despair."

The U.N. report warned that extremist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS have exploited the security vacuum created by the war. It also noted that sectarianism is on the rise among some political and religious leaders.

On Aug. 31, Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, advised the Security Council of the same thing. He said al-Qaeda and ISIS "continue to wreak havoc in significant parts of Yemen."

Ahmed cautioned, "The absence of the state in many parts of Yemen, in addition to the chaos created by war, will continue to facilitate the expansion of these terrorist groups which represents a real threat to the region."

Journalist Safa al-Ahmad, reporting for the BBC, said she saw Emirati forces from the Saudi-led coalition fighting alongside al-Qaeda, together battling Yemen's Houthi rebels.

In April the Pentagon quietly sent U.S. troops into Yemen to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has greatly benefited from the destructive war.

The U.S. and U.K. have played a pivotal role in the catastrophic war. The Obama administration has done more than $110 billion in arms deals with the Saudi monarchy. The U.S. military continues to refuel coalition planes and provide intelligence, and American and British officials have physically been in the room with Saudi bombers. The New York Times editorial board noted, "Experts say the coalition would be grounded if Washington withheld its support."

For months, the U.N. has repeatedly said the U.S.-backed coalition is responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties. It has, however, also documented atrocities committed by Houthi rebels and militants loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh that are fighting the coalition forces.

On Aug. 31, the Saudi-led coalition bombed the home of a Yemeni imam in northern Yemen, killing at least 16 members of his extended family.

This was the latest in a slew of attacks on civilians. In just over three weeks after the peace talks broke down on Aug. 6, the U.S.-backed coalition bombed a hospital, a school, a food factory, another civilian home and more, killing at least 70 civilians.

The hospital attacked by the coalition was the fourth medical facility run by Doctors Without Borders to be bombed in Yemen in the past 10 months. Amnesty International identified remnants of bombs at this hospital that were manufactured in either the U.S. or the U.K.

In response to the attack, which killed 19 civilians, Doctors Without Borders withdrew its remaining staff from six hospitals in northern Yemen.

The bloodshed has inspired some lawmakers in the U.S. to take action. At the Sept. 1 U.S. State Department press briefing, a reporter noted that about 65 House lawmakers sent a letter to President Barack Obama, calling on him to halt a $1.15 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia. The congresspeople cited reports of attacks on Yemeni civilians.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby responded by emphasizing that "Saudi Arabia remains a key ally and partner in the region."

He said, "The United States continues to support a strong defense and security relationship with Saudi Arabia," noting that Secretary of State Kerry visited Jeddah in late August to discuss the conflict with Saudi authorities.

"We obviously understand and share concerns by members of Congress about the damage to civilian infrastructure and to innocent civilian lives in Yemen as a result of Saudi-led coalition operations," Kirby added.

The reporter continued, "But particularly if there’s a concern about damage to civilian infrastructure and civilian casualties, there must be also a concern that that could be being done in the hands of U.S. weapons by the Saudis."

The State Department spokesperson repeated, "Obviously, we have a strong defense relationship with Saudi Arabia, which results in foreign military sales of quite a bit of articles of defense-related equipment." He said the U.S. has raised concerns about civilian casualties but could not provide any further details.

Amnesty International has condemned the U.S. government for its "astonishing,"and "vast flood of weapons" to the Saudi regime.

"Yemen's horror exposes the deadly hypocrisy of arms exporters like the U.K. and the USA," wrote Amnesty International's arms control campaigner Rasha Abdul Rahim and Yemen researcher Rasha Mohamed, in an Aug. 26 article.

They called the silence of the U.S. and U.K. about the suffering of Yemeni civilians "deafening."

"It is hard to imagine the despair that Yemenis feel," the Amnesty International researchers wrote. "There is nowhere that children can feel safe; they make up a third of the 3,799 civilians killed in Yemen since the coalition campaign began in March 2015."

Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented the Saudi-led coalition's use of cluster munitions  — banned in much of the world — in civilian areas. These bombs were made in the U.S.,  the U.K. and Brazil.

"The refusal of Saudi Arabia's main arms suppliers to engage in any kind of public debate about what is happening in Yemen is shameful," they continued. "Blunt denials, vague platitudes, or just plain silence are becoming the standard responses to reams of credible information on how the Saudi Arabia-led coalition are using those arms to commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law."

Until countries that are party to the international Arms Trade Treaty "begin to live up to the treaty's obligations, all Yemenis in hospital beds can do is pray that the next round of airstrikes hits somewhere else," the Amnesty International officials concluded.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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