Senate rejects bill blocking U.S.-Saudi arms deal; rights groups applaud "growing dissent" on Yemen war crimes

Bill to halt $1.15B weapons sale killed by 71-27 vote; Oxfam slams "heartless and disjointed" U.S. policy on Yemen

Published September 21, 2016 9:00PM (EDT)

A Yemeni man cries out after a Saudi-led bombing in Yemen's capital Sanaa, on February 10, 2016  (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
A Yemeni man cries out after a Saudi-led bombing in Yemen's capital Sanaa, on February 10, 2016 (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

A bill to block a huge American arms deal to Saudi Arabia failed to pass in the Senate on Wednesday. Lawmakers voted 71-27 to table Senate Joint Resolution 39.

The bill would have halted a $1.15 billion sale of hundreds of U.S.-made tank structures, machine guns, grenade launchers and armored vehicle structures, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition, to Saudi Arabia.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced the joint resolution earlier this month. Explaining their motivation, Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; and Mike Lee, R-Utah cited the atrocities committed by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and the ways the war has strengthened extremist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS.

Rights groups including Amnesty International, Oxfam and more released statements applauding the senators who introduced the bill, and expressing dismay that it failed to pass.

"Today’s vote is the latest example of a growing trend of dissent in Congress when it comes to the United States’ military alliance with Saudi Arabia," said Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International USA's advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"U.S. officials know that the Saudi government continues dropping bombs on civilian communities and yet the Obama administration continues selling them weapons," Bery added. "This arms deal is bad for the people of Yemen, bad for the region and bad for U.S. foreign policy. President Obama should cancel it immediately."

The humanitarian group Oxfam said it "applauds" the senators who introduced the bill. "Today, for the first time since the war in Yemen began, 27 senators voiced the first cries of dissent against our government’s unconditional and unlimited support for the Saudi-led coalition," Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, said in a statement.

"Concern in Congress regarding the situation in Yemen and the U.S.’ heartless and disjointed approach to it will only grow stronger," Offenheiser added.

The ongoing war in Yemen has killed a minimum of 10,000 Yemenis, according to the U.N. There has been an average of 13 civilian casualties each day since the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition launched its bombing campaign in March 2015.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., introduced on Tuesday the House companion to the joint resolution to block the U.S.-Saudi arms deal. “There is now overwhelming evidence that war crimes are being committed in Yemen and that most of them appear to be done by Saudi Arabia-led air strikes,” he told Salon.

These bipartisan joint resolutions in both chambers came after 64 members of Congress signed a letter to President Obama, calling on him to postpone the latest weapons sale. The lawmakers warned about the “deeply troubling impact on civilians” in Yemen.

Amnesty International USA's board of directors also sent a letter to President Obama on Sept. 9, urging him to stop the arms deal. The rights group's board stressed that "Saudi Arabia and its military coalition have engaged in widespread violations of international humanitarian law," noting the "substantial risk that Saudi Arabia could use new U.S. arms to further devastate civilian communities in Yemen."

The Senate had a lively debate on the bill on Wednesday. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle variously condemned or supported the resolution.

Sen. Rand Paul condemned the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. He noted the war in Yemen is killing large numbers of civilians and fueling extremism. Sen. Paul also pointed to Saudi Arabia's horrific human rights record, its executions of peaceful activists who were arrested as minors and its extreme repression of women — including the harsh punishment, such as lashing, of women who were raped.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., on the other hand, opposed the bill. He joined several other lawmakers in arguing that the U.S. should help Saudi Arabia in order to "balance the power" in the Middle East against Iran. Corker also claimed that U.S. weapons can help the Saudi monarchy "fight terrorism."

Saudi Arabia has, at best, a mixed record on terrorism. As the U.S. State Department and the European Parliament have both acknowledged, “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Moreover, Saudi Arabia has spent tens of billions of dollars exporting its fundamentalist state Wahhabi ideology — which is very similar to the ideology of ISIS and al-Qaeda — throughout the world, fueling extremist groups.

Despite the setback, William Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, argued that "the fact that the vote occurred at all" is a good sign.

Hartung's research shows that the Obama administration has offered Saudi Arabia more than $115 billion in weapons, a record-breaking figure.

He stressed that the U.S. role in the continued war in Yemen is crucial. "The battle to force Saudi Arabia to stop its targeting of civilians in Yemen is far from over," Hartung explained. "If it chooses to do something about it, the Obama administration has considerable leverage available to press the Saudis to stop their unconscionable behavior in Yemen. The Saudis could not wage an air war of this magnitude without U.S. arms and assistance."

Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, commended the incipient congressional action. He noted that there are still "additional opportunities" available to block the U.S. weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, and urged the president and Congress to act on these.

“For nearly a year and a half, the United States has fueled a conflict that has threatened the lives of millions in Yemen without any meaningful debate," Ray Offenheiser, the Oxfam America president, explained. "The parties fighting this war — including the Saudi-led coalition supported by the U.S. — have demonstrated a startling indifference to civilian lives."

Offenheiser continued, "Of course, the courage and common sense of a minority of senators will be cold comfort to the millions of Yemenis struggling to survive without adequate food or health services amidst daily bombing and shelling. Today, millions of Yemenis are on the verge of starvation and more than 10,000 children under age 5 have died from preventable diseases. Every tank, missile and gallon of jet fuel supplied by the U.S. to the Saudi-led coalition is a clear signal that the U.S. is indifferent to Yemen’s misery."

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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