Denying the obvious in Yemen

Saudi Arabia is not only denying that its forces have committed war crimes in Yemen; it is now also denying that human rights organisations have been on the ground investigating them.

Interviewed on NPR radio yesterday, General Ahmad Asiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, was asked about the large number of civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes – in particular strikes on a village marketplace on March 15 that killed at least 97 people, including 25 children:

Interviewer: Human Rights Watch sent a team. They examined the site. They concluded that this was an indiscriminate strike carried out by Saudi Arabia.

Asiri: Unfortunately, today, there is no team from Human Rights Watch on the ground.

Interviewer: They went. They saw it.

Asiri: No. No one can get in Yemen without the permission of the coalition ... We hope that Human Rights Watch and the other NGOs come to the coalition and ask permission and we will send them down to investigate. We need to investigate those allegations ...

The general's claim is especially strange because Human Rights Watch visited the site of the attack in Mastaba, north-western Yemen, on March 28. It interviewed 23 witnesses, plus medical workers at local hospitals and published a report of its investigation, along with a video recorded at the scene:

Yesterday, Belkis Wille, who researches Yemen for Human Rights Watch, described General Asiri's remarks as laughable and insisted that the Saudis know about her visits to the country:

"This two-week trip was the fourth I had made to Yemen since the beginning of the war in March 2015. 

"Since the war started, all Yemenia Airway flights to Sanaa touch down in Saudi Arabia, where Saudi immigration officers board the plane, search the baggage, and selectively question passengers. 

"Each time, I was one of the only passengers to have my passport confiscated for the layover, without a word of explanation. The Saudis know every time I visit Yemen."

HRW is not the only organisation alleging war crimes in Yemen. In January, a panel of experts for the UN Security Council said none of the parties to the conflict had upheld the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. 

The panel found that the Saudi-led coalition "had conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure ..."

The panel said it was also investigating the coalition’s use of cluster munitions in populated areas of north-western Yemen:

"The military spokesman of Saudi Arabia, Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, indicated that Saudi Arabia had used cluster munitions on or against armoured vehicles in Yemen, but not against civilian targets. Two international non-governmental organisations and a United Nations agency provided photographs of cluster submunitions and footage of their use near or over a rural village in Yemen."

Evidence that actions of the Saudi-led coalition are contravening international humanitarian law raises questions about the role of Britain and the US in providing weapons.

In its report on the Mastaba attack, HRW said it had found remnants at the market of an American-supplied GBU-31 satellite-guided bomb. It added that a British TV team who visited the site two days earlier had also filmed fragments from a MK-84 bomb paired with a Paveway laser guidance kit.

Statistics compiled by the Campaign Against Arms Trade show that the Yemeni war has brought a sales bonanza for British arms firms. In little more than nine months between the start of the bombing campaign and the end of 2015, the UK government approved licences for military exports to Saudi Arabia worth £2.8 billion ($4 billion) – a huge increase on the previous few years. 

Not surprisingly in view of this lucrative trade, Britain's foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has adopted a similar position to General Asiri in denying that crimes are taking place. In an extraordinary letter to Stephen Twigg MP last month, Hammond wrote:

"There is no clear risk that Saudi Arabia might use the UK export to commit serious violations of IHL [international humanitarian law]. In particular: 

(1) the Saudi-led Coalition are not targeting civilians; 

(2) Saudi Arabian processes and procedures have been put in place to ensure respect for the principles of IHL; 

(3) Saudi Arabia is investigating incidents of concern, including those involving civilian casualties; 

(4) Saudi Arabia has throughout engaged in constructive dialogue with the UK about both its processes and incidents of concern;

(5) Saudi Arabia has been and remains genuinely committed to IHL compliance."

Hammond justified this claim on the basis that the British government is privy to "a wide range of information to which the UN and the NGOs ... do not have access, including: Saudi-led Coalition operational reporting data; imagery; and other reports and assessments, including UK Defence Intelligence reports and some battle damage assessments."
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 17 May 2016