Saudi Arabia, the US, and Violations of International Law

A picture is really worth a thousand words. When the picture of little Omran Daqneesh, the boy covered in dust and rubble sitting in the back of an ambulance after being rescued from his house in Aleppo, Syria, after it was hit by an airstrike, went viral, the world was suddenly made aware of the horrors of war. Never again, the world said, echoing the chorus of solidarity with refugees, after the photo of a dead Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, made headlines around the world.

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But now, there’s a new face of the horrors of war: Buthaina Muhammad Mansour, a Yemeni child whose entire family was killed in a Saudi airstrike. Unlike with Omran and Aylan, Buthaina isn’t on the nightly news program. There are no Western journalists shedding tears on national TV for her. But this article is not about the hypocrisy of media outlets when it comes to covering war. Rather, it is about how the United States should stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia to prevent other Yemeni children from becoming orphans like Buthaina.

When Saudi Arabia first intervened in Yemen in 2015 after the fall of the country’s president, Mansour al Hadi, no one imagined it would become the brutal stalemate it is today. Yemen is a poor country after all, and despite the Houthi rebels, who ran al Hadi out of the country, being allegedly funded by Iran, Saudi Arabia is backed by the militarily superior US. Saudi Arabia’s reasons for intervening in Yemen were religious, political and somewhat paranoid. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Islamic nation and Iran is Shia. The divisions between the two sects date as far back as the death of the prophet Muhammad and the ensuing fight over who would be his successor. Today, this division takes the shape of Saudi Arabia being on the Sunni side and Iran being the Shia villain. With Iran’s man in Syria (Bashar al Assad) seeming to be on a winning streak, and with Shia protests in Bahrain threatening Sunni hegemony in the gulf, when the Houthis (Shia rebels) ousted the Sunni president (al Hadi), Saudi Arabia felt compelled to intervene, lest there be any more challenges to their influence in the region.

However, Saudi Arabia miscalculated. What should have been a quick and easy war has dragged on for about two years, costing the oil-rich kingdom millions of dollars in military spending. In addition, the kingdom and its allies (some of whom are part of a military coalition with Saudi Arabia) have committed grave violations of international law. The consensus among human rights groups is that the Saudi coalition is responsible for most of the civilian deaths in Yemen, through a blockade which is causing famine in the already-poor nation and the targeting of civilian infrastructure like hospitals. While the Kingdom has promised to review some of its actions, not enough is being done to protect civilian life. But where did Saudi Arabia gets its military equipment which it is using to wreak havoc upon Yemen? Mostly from the United States.

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The US and Saudi Arabia are very close allies, as the Kingdom is seen as a reliable ally for the US in their war against terrorism. Thus, the US gives Saudi Arabia billions of dollars each year in military aid. In addition to the US aiding the Saudi coalition through re-fueling aircraft, the military aid the US gives to Saudi Arabia means the US is complicit in the kingdom’s war crimes. The US may not be the one who pulled the trigger, but they supplied the gun.

But giving arms to human rights violators is a violation of US law, the Leahy Laws to be exact. Named after Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), these laws prohibit the sale of arms to countries and/or military groups that “violate human rights with impunity”. These violations include the intentional targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, torture, etc…However, Saudi Arabia and its allies have committed many of these human rights violations and yet the US still provides them with weapons. According to human rights groups, Saudi Arabia has been intentional targeting civilian infrastructure and civilians themselves. The UAE (a partner in the Saudi coalition) has been accused of operating torture centers in Yemen. Alas, the presumed benefits of a good relationship with Saudi Arabia for the US outweighs the risks. If the US and Saudi Arabia are allies, the US has a reliable ally in a region in which it desperately needs one. Cold cynicism, it seems, trumps human rights.

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