The Cable

U.S.: Saudis Can Use Cluster Bombs in Yemen, But Only if They’re Extra Careful

The State Department said it is “looking into” allegations that Saudi Arabia is dropping cluster bombs on targets inside Yemen but said the notoriously imprecise weapon -- banned by much of the world -- could still have an appropriate role to play in Riyadh’s U.S.-backed offensive.

TIBNIN, LEBANON - APRIL 20: Parts of a cluster bomb are displayed near the Belgian Camp on April 20, 2007 in Tibnin, Lebanon. Prince Philippe is in Lebanon to meet with the 390 Belgian soldiers who make part of United Nations Interim Forces In Lebanon (UNIFIL). (Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images)
TIBNIN, LEBANON - APRIL 20: Parts of a cluster bomb are displayed near the Belgian Camp on April 20, 2007 in Tibnin, Lebanon. Prince Philippe is in Lebanon to meet with the 390 Belgian soldiers who make part of United Nations Interim Forces In Lebanon (UNIFIL). (Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images)

The State Department said it is “looking into” allegations that Saudi Arabia is dropping cluster bombs on targets inside Yemen but said the notoriously imprecise weapon — banned by much of the world — could still have an appropriate role to play in Riyadh’s U.S.-backed offensive.

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch said video and photographic evidence showed that Saudi Arabia used cluster bombs near villages in Yemen’s Saada Province at least two separate times. The NGO was not able to confirm if any deaths resulted from the strikes, though Riyadh has come under intensifying criticism over the number of civilian casualties in its month-long bombing campaign, a trend that is beginning to unnerve Obama administration officials. The World Health Organization said recently that at least 944 Yemenis have been killed and nearly 3,500 injured so far.

“We’re looking into those details carefully. I don’t have an outcome of that to report,”  State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said in answer to questions about the HRW report. “We take all accounts of civilian deaths in the ongoing hostilities in Yemen very seriously.”

Andrea Prasow, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, said the group had not yet been contacted by the Obama administration following the release of the report, “but would welcome  such a conversation.”

Cluster bombs are banned by 116 countries, but not Saudi Arabia, Yemen or the United States. They’re criticized for hitting a wide area rather than a small target and posing a long term danger to civilians for years to come because unexploded mini-bombs have been known to detonate if picked up or touched. Israel, another close American ally, has also been criticized for their use.

On Monday, Rathke noted that U.S. law and policy dictates that the United States may only export cluster munitions to foreign buyers if the weapon’s unexploded ordnance rate does not exceed one percent. The U.S. also requires that the governments buying U.S. cluster bombs “must commit that cluster munitions will only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present or in areas normally inhabited by civilians,” said Rathke.

When Foreign Policy asked if cluster bombs were “appropriate” to use in the U.S.-backed air campaign in Yemen, Rathke said they were so long as they’re used “against clearly defined military targets.”

“That’s our policy on those,” he said.

U.S. officials told the Associated Press on Friday that Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Saudi Arabia next week would include discussions about civilian casualties and different ways to end the conflict and kickstart dialogue between the ousted government of president-in-exile Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The Saudi-led air campaign began after Houthi rebels ousted Hadi’s government, began pushing towards the strategic port city of Aden, and moved closer to Yemen’s border with the kingdom. Though the U.S. has provided logistical support for the operation, it is loath to get in the middle of a conflict widely viewed as a sectarian proxy battle between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran — especially as it negotiates a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran.

Saudi Arabia said on April 21 that it was transitioning its air campaign, Decisive Storm, to a newer mission called Restoring Hope after successfully removing “threats to Saudi Arabia’s security” by “destroying heavy weaponry and ballistic missiles which were seized by the Houthi militia.”

But doubts about the effectiveness of the Arab-led military operation have increased in recent days as Houthi groups continue to make advances in Aden, the second biggest city in Yemen, and show no signs of being pushed out of Sanaa or other rebel-held areas of the country.

On the humanitarian front, U.S. officials have privately noted concerns about civilian casualties and fears that Riyadh is failing to properly vet the local fighters it’s arming in Yemen. But publicly, the White House fully backs the operation.

The civilian death toll in Yemen remains unclear. The country’s exiled government estimates that 1,000 civilians have been killed in the past month — almost twice the amount estimated by the United Nations. The U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) says at least 64 children have died from the airstrikes. Riyadh insists that it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

During the press conference, Rathke said “we share the concerns regarding unintended harm to civilians caused by the use of cluster munitions.”

“The United States remains the single largest financial supporter of addressing the explosive remnants of war,” he added.

Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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