Joint Letter: Congress Must Block Biden Administration’s Wrongful $650 Million Arm sale to Saudi Arabia or Risk Fueling Further U.S. Complicity in Rights Violations and Yemini Civilian Suffering

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

Dear Members of Congress,

We, the undersigned non-governmental organizations, write in opposition to the Biden Administration’s plans to sell $650 million in air-to-air munitions to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Despite claiming defensive use, the proposed arms sale risks fueling continued civilian harm by strengthening the Saudi-led coalition’s capacity to enforce its devastating air and sea blockade of Yemen. It also risks further perpetuating U.S. complicity in Saudi forces’ violations in Yemen, contrary to this administration’s obligations under international law and U.S. law. We call on Congress to support Representative Ilhan Omar’s and Senator Rand Paul’s joint resolutions of disapproval to block these harmful arms sales, and end all U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led coalition’s armed conflict and unlawful blockade in Yemen.

Approving this sale sends a message of impunity that the United States supports Saudi Arabia’s escalating policy of collective punishment, at a time when it is critical the administration heed the calls of over 100 members of Congress to use U.S. leverage, including the halting of arms transfers and military assistance, to end the blockade and other violations against civilians in Yemen. Roughly 20.7 million people—nearly 80% of the population—are in need of humanitarian aid, with a staggering 16.2 million Yemenis acutely food insecure and 7 million on the brink of famine. A recent Washington Post report on a Yemeni family that had to choose between which of their children would be saved from starvation illustrates the issue of the Saudi-led coalition’s control of Yemen’s airspace and “severe restrictions on the port of Hodeidah.”

For nearly seven years, U.S.-supported Saudi forces have unlawfully targeted civilian objects and infrastructure via indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks that have killed and injured thousands of civilians in Yemen. These aerial bombardments include myriad war crimes and have exacerbated the catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The unlawful blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition on Yemen has led to catastrophic impacts on fuel, food, and medical access for millions, illegally obstructing critically needed aid and assistance. Saudi fighters attacked Sana’a airport’s runway in April 2015, destroying cargo planes transporting vital humanitarian assistance.

Since 2016, Saudi Arabia has turned the airport into what aid groups have described as a “ghost terminal” by ending all flights to and from Sana’a. According to the Yemen Data Project, Saudi bombings of Sana’a airport still occur regularly, with the most recent attacks launched in March of this year. Since the Saudi-led coalition air strikes began in March 2015, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have extensively documented use of U.S.-manufactured weapons in air strikes hitting hospitals, schools, and civilian homes—killing healthcare providers, teachers, and entire families, including children.

Despite the claim of “defensive use,” the proposed sale of these AIM-120 Air-to-Air Missiles and hundreds of missile launchers are not exclusively defensive, and can reasonably be used to support offensive operations. These missiles lend another tool for Saudi-led forces to maintain and enforce their brutal blockade, particularly by raising their ability to threaten aircraft that would seek to land. More broadly, continuing to arm Saudi forces allows their grave rights violations and fueling of one of world’s worst humanitarian crises to evade accountability, and amounts to support and political cover for the illegal blockade. As noted in a recent article published by Brookings, “blockades cannot be defensive: they are offensive operations,” and U.S. involvement should have ended following Biden’s declaration to end U.S. support for the coalition.

Misleading claims about the defensive nature of these weapons fail to recognize that this sale would constitute continued U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s role in the armed conflict in Yemen. Congress must make clear that the U.S. instead should end all support and arms transfers to parties to this conflict, namely the Saudi-led coalition—which it must pressure to end its brutal campaign in Yemen. On May 19, 2021, 16 Senators requested that the Biden Administration “demand that Saudi Arabia allow the unfettered delivery of food, fuel, and other humanitarian aid through the Hodeidah port, under United Nations auspices to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. Failure to provide such access should have a direct impact on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, to include pending weapons sales.”

The impact of the continued closure of Sana’a airport has been devastating for civilians in Yemen. CARE and Norwegian Refugee Council stated that in February 2020, “28 patients were flown out of Sana’a airport on medical mercy flights for urgent treatment” but “close to 32,000 others who were on a waiting list were not so lucky” and are now “without options.” The nearly complete halt to medical supplies entering the airport, combined with restrictions on fuel imports through Yemen’s sea ports, has caused “prices of some medicine to double, making it unaffordable for most of the population and further contributing to the decline of Yemen’s health system, already decimated by the conflict.”

Houthi forces in Yemen engaged in the armed conflict with the Saudi-led coalition have also carried out grave violations of human rights, as well as possible war crimes in attacks against civilians. Actions by Houthi de facto authorities have also exacerbated the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the country by additionally interfering with and impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance for civilians in need. U.S. government criticism and response to Houthi violations in Yemen has, however, been pronounced and consistent—criticisms that are necessary; but the same cannot be said for this administration’s response to the abuses by Saudi forces, which has been conveniently toned down in comparison. Further, these violations by Houthi forces do not serve as a justification for continuing U.S. involvement in the atrocities fueled by this conflict, and do not change the U.S. ‘s obligations under international law.

In light of the Saudi’s pattern of unlawful attacks on civilians and human rights violations, the proposed sales also violate long-standing provisions in the Leahy Laws and Foreign Assistance Act that prohibit the United States from providing arms and security assistance to gross human rights violators and those restricting access to humanitarian assistance, such as the Saudi regime. Further, the Arms Export Control Act bars the United States from providing arms transfers to foreign governments found to carry out harassment and intimidation of U.S. residents, which Saudi authorities have repeatedly been documented to perpetrate, prominently in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.

These wrongful sales risk fueling further civilian harm and human rights violations in Yemen and beyond—as well as U.S. complicity in abuses and possible war crimes. Our organizations call on Congress to support and vote in favor of Rep. Omar’s joint resolution of disapproval in the House and Sen. Paul’s resolution in the Senate, and oppose future arms sales and U.S. complicity in the Saudi-led coalition’s gross violations of international law in Yemen, including its blockade.

The Biden administration in its very first weeks committed both to center human rights in foreign policy and to end U.S. complicity in the war in Yemen; allowing this sale to stand breaks that commitment, and would be a human rights failure.

Sincerely,

  1. Amnesty International USA
  2. Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
  3. Just Foreign Policy
  4. Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation
  5. Action Corps
  6. ALQST for Human Rights
  7. American Muslim Bar Association
  8. American Muslim Empowerment Network (AMEN)
  9. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
  10. Antiwar.com
  11. Arms Control Association
  12. Avaaz
  13. Ban Killer Drones
  14. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  15. Churches for Middle East Peace
  16. Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
  17. Center for International Policy
  18. CODEPINK
  19. Demand Progress
  20. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  21. Feminist Majority Foundation
  22. Freedom Forward
  23. Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)
  24. Hands Off Yemen
  25. Hawai’i Peace and Justice
  26. Health Alliance International
  27. Justice Democrats
  28. Justice for Muslims Collective
  29. Justice Is Global
  30. MENA Rights Group
  31. Minnesota Peace Project
  32. MoveOn
  33. National Council of Churches USA
  34. Nonviolence International
  35. Peace Action
  36. Peace Action Bay Ridge
  37. Peace Direct
  38. Public Citizen
  39. Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
  40. ReThinking Foreign Policy
  41. RootsAction.org
  42. Secure Justice
  43. Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team
  44. Spin Film
  45. The Episcopal Church
  46. The United Methodist Church – General Board of Church and Society
  47. United for Peace & Justice
  48. University Network for Human Rights
  49. Win Without War
  50. World BEYOND War
  51. Yemeni Alliance Committee

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