Taiz, Yemen- 04 Feb 2021 : A poor girl lives in a displacement camp in Taiz, Yemen (akramalrasny/shutterstock)
The Saudi blockade on Yemen is a war crime, and only civilians suffer from it

Members of Congress are pressing President Biden to put the squeeze on Riyadh, and to use weapons sales as leverage.

While all eyes have been on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Senator Elizabeth Warren has led the effort to pressure the Biden administration to pressure Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade on Yemen. In a letter to the President, she writes:

“We request that you leverage all influence & tools available,  including the potential impact on pending weapons sales, U.S.-Saudi military cooperation, and U.S.-Saudi ties more broadly, to demand that Saudi Arabia immediately & unconditionally stop the use of blockade tactics. The current commercial fuel import standoff must end today and be decoupled from ongoing negotiations.” 

Fourteen other Democratic Senators, as well as Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), co-signed the letter, which was supported by multiple organizations, including the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, Just Foreign Policy, as well as the Quincy Institute. 

Though lifting the blockade is not sufficient to end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it is a necessary step, both strategically and morally. Warren’s letter reiterates that the role played by the United States is inexcusable: by not demanding the Saudis withdraw, the U.S. tacitly supports Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen, including its use of starvation as a weapon of war. 

Warren’s statement regarding the need to decouple the restrictions on fuel imports from negotiations is significant, as ceasefire proposals put forward in March by U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking as well as by the Saudis both offered to partially lift the blockade in exchange for a Houthi ceasefire. For their part, the Houthis, known formally as Ansar Allah, have demanded the blockade be lifted regardless of ceasefire negotiations, arguing that the starvation of Yemenis is an unacceptable bargaining chip. The actions of the Saudi government in preventing food and fuel from reaching Yemen violate the terms of the Geneva Convention, to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory, and therefore constitute a war crime.

Efforts by the 117th Congress to Address Crisis in Yemen

Warren’s letter is the latest attempt by Congress to push President Biden to fulfill his campaign promise to end U.S. support for the Saudi war on Yemen. Two weeks into his presidency, Biden stated that the United States would no longer provide assistance for “offensive” operations in Yemen, “including relevant arms sales.” However, the administration did not clarify how this statement had changed current  policy. The Saudis argue that their military actions are defensive, but since most weapons can be used for either offensive or defensive purposes, a clarification is necessary. 

On February 24, 41 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter requesting that Biden define the nature and extent of military support for Saudi military operations. The letter, written by Reps. Peter DeFazio, Ro Khanna, and Debbie Dingell, also asked the administration to delineate its position on the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE, which continues to maintain control of key infrastructure in Yemen and to fund separatist groups fighting for territory. On March 11, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s first hearing of the new Congress focused on the crisis in Yemen. On April 6, Debbie Dingell, Mark Pocan, and Ro Khanna led 76 members of the House in a letter asking the Biden administration to “take additional steps to publicly pressure Saudi Arabia to lift this blockade immediately, unilaterally, and comprehensively.” 

On April 21, Biden’s special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking testified in front of both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and later the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s respective Middle East subcommittees. When asked by Rep. Ted Lieu if Washington continued to provide support for the Saudi Air Force, Lenderking said, “I’m not totally in that information loop.” Tom Malinowski followed up, saying, “As the envoy, you’ve got to know whether DoD is providing the support that is absolutely necessary for the Saudi Air Force to be able to continue operations… It’s a critical part of your leverage in leading the diplomatic effort.” Lenderking replied that he would need to defer to the Department of Defense for details. Lieu, Malinowski, and Khanna subsequently sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with a transcript of the exchange, expressing concern that the United States was still supporting offensive military actions by Saudi Arabia. 

Finally, on April 28, Biden invited key progressives, including Khanna and Sanders, to the White House to clarify the administration’s position. However, Biden has yet to publicly explain how his statement on February 4 altered U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. The administration resumed the sale of Blackhawk helicopters as well as THAAD batteries to the kingdom in April, underscoring the need for clarity in the administration’s definition of “relevant” arms sales.

Ending the Blockade

Biden may lack the means of forcing Yemen’s warring parties to agree to a ceasefire. However, what Biden can influence is the malign role that Saudi Arabia plays in the war.

Congressional pressure on the Biden administration increased after CNN released a video on March 10 documenting the effects of the blockade. Although the Houthis generally prevent the entry of independent, and especially Western journalists, CNN Senior Correspondent Nima Elbagir traveled to several Houthi-controlled locations, including Hodeidah and Sanaa, documenting the devastating levels of starvation, especially in young children who are particularly vulnerable to inadequate nutrition. The CNN report was cited by Debbie Dingell in the letter she sent to the Biden administration on April 6. 

The Saudis justify their blockade on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which passed in 2015 soon after the Saudis led a coalition to try to oust the Houthis from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The Resolution stipulates that the UN establish a process, known as the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM), to prevent Iran from smuggling weapons to the Houthis. 

However, Yemen’s internationally recognized government — led by President Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh — and the Saudis impose additional restrictions and delays on imports beyond those already in place. Their stated goal is to prevent the Houthis from gaining access to additional resources, especially revenues from the port of Hodeidah. 

Yet the primary effect of the blockade is the immiseration of Yemen’s population. Weapons smuggling persists, often overland from Oman, which undermines the UN’s justification for restricting imports. In the war between the various factions in Yemen, the civilian Yemeni population is victimized by all sides. The Houthis exhibit little concern for the welfare of ordinary Yemenis, and seem unmoved by the suffering caused by the blockade. Unwilling to admit they have lost the war, the Saudis and the Hadi government appear primarily determined to take out their frustration on the population of Yemenis under Houthi control. The U.S. should never have supported this war crime in the first place and must quickly transform its role in Yemen from enabling foreign belligerence, to using its diplomatic power to allow basic resources to flow freely into the country.

Warren’s letter clearly establishes the imperative for the U.S. to use all possible leverage to make clear to Saudi Arabia that it can continue to blockade Yemen, or it can have a relationship with the U.S. With this latest call from one of Washington’s most influential Senators, Biden must make good on his commitment to ending U.S. complicity in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

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