Secretary of State John Kerry this week waved off concerns about U.S.-supported Saudi coalition airstrikes in Yemen that have indiscriminately bombed civilians and rescuers, and instead blamed the Shiite Houthi rebels for the bulk of the civilian casualties.
“There have been a lot of civilian casualties, and clearly, civilian casualties are a concern,” Kerry told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “I think the Saudis have expressed in the last weeks their desire to make certain that they’re acting responsibly and not endangering civilians.”
Kerry instead faulted the Shiite Houthis, who are on the receiving end of the airstrikes, saying they “have a pretty good, practiced way of putting civilians into danger.”
According to a report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, 60 percent of the more than 3,200 people killed and 5,700 wounded in the conflict through September 2015 were killed in coalition airstrikes. The Saudi coalition has also intentionally targeted civilian areas, destroying hospitals, schools, factories, markets, and homes.
The Saudi coalition announced last week that they have “fully complied with international … law,” and that “coalition forces have a robust process to ensure all targets are genuinely military.” The announcement also promised that “avoidable collateral damage” will be referred to an “internal accident investigation team,” and that “compensation for the victims … is pledged.”
But the only public investigation Saudi Arabia has conducted on its military took place in October, after Saudi Arabia bombed an MSF (Doctors without Borders) hospital in Yemen. The kingdom’s ambassador to the U.N. admitted that the strike was a “mistake,” but blamed the incident on MSF providing incorrect coordinates.
In January, coalition aircraft fired a rocket at another MSF-supported facility, in Saada, near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, killing six people. MSF personnel could not confirm the identity of the attackers, but said that “planes were seen flying over the facility at the time.”
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has tried to dismiss and discredit the work of human rights monitors on the ground in Yemen.
In an interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly last month, the spokesperson for the Saudi coalition asserted, “There is no team from Human Rights Watch on the ground. 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.”
Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch’s Yemen and Kuwait researcher, has made four trips to Yemen for Human Rights Watch since the beginning of the campaign. She posted a video in response, showing her standing in the remains of a destroyed market in Matstaba, in northern Yemen:
Human rights groups have documented repeated uses in Yemen of cluster bombs: shell casings that, when they open, scatter thousands of miniature explosives over a huge area. Some of the bomblets invariably fail to detonate on impact, leaving mine-like explosives that kill civilians and destroy farmland long after a conflict ends.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied using cluster bombs, but in January, for example, one 13-year-old boy from Noug’a, a small village 20 miles from the Saudi border in Yemen, discovered cluster bomblets near the village spring, according to an interview with Amnesty International. The boy said that the miniature explosives were green and “shaped like a small ball you could play with.” When the boy picked one up and threw it out of the way, it exploded. He was hospitalized for two months.
The U.N. adopted a treaty banning cluster bombs in 2008, which 119 nations have signed.
Last week, The Intercept asked State Department spokesperson Mark Toner at a press briefing whether the Saudis should stop using cluster bombs. He replied, “I’d have to refer you to the Saudis to speak to the types of strikes that they did carry out in Yemen.”
But while refusing to publicly condemn Saudi Arabia for using cluster weapons, the White House quietly blocked a transfer of U.S.-made CBU-105 cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia last week.