The Yemeni embassy seeks to discredit civil society advocates holding an event on Capitol Hill. What are they afraid of?
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
The Yemeni embassy in Washington has written to Senate staffers blasting a planned event on Capitol Hill featuring two Yemeni civil society activists, an unusual step betraying Sanaa’s acute sensitivity to criticism as it seeks more U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led military campaign in the country.
The extraordinary email to lawmakers’ offices, obtained by Foreign Policy, appeared aimed at discouraging congressional aides from attending the briefing at the Dirksen Senate office building on Thursday afternoon with two established local advocates. The note warned Senate aides that participants in the event had a political “agenda” tied to Iran-backed Houthi rebels battling the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The speakers at the event “are covertly supporting the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in advancing a campaign to malign the reputation of the legitimate, internationally recognized and U.S. supported government of President Hadi,” the embassy letter said.
“Does the U.S. Senate really want to host an event with figures with ties or political sympathies to factions that harbor such sentiments?” it added.
The Yemen Peace Project, a small non-profit group that helped organize the event, categorically rejected the allegations, saying the participants had no ties to the Houthi rebels or former president Saleh, and that the organization has documented rights abuses carried out by both sides in the conflict.
The Yemen Peace Project is “very disappointed” that the Yemeni embassy would try to dissuade Senate staffers from attending a briefing “to learn more about Yemen, especially when there are thousands of Yemenis on the brink of famine,” said Kate Kizer, director of policy and advocacy for the group. “Our focus is to bring awareness of the U.S. role in the conflict.’
The event features Radhya Almutawakel, who leads a human rights organization focused on Yemen and who regularly reports to United Nations organizations on human rights in Yemen, and Samaa al-Hamdani, an analyst writing about Yemeni politics and women’s issues who has been published in Al Monitor and other websites.
Congressional staffers said it was unusual for an embassy to go to such lengths to undercut a public event, though Egypt’s embassy has been aggressive in recent years in trying to discredit groups or analysts deemed critical of Cairo.
While it is “the prerogative of the U.S. Senate to host events with speakers with opposing views to any particular issue, the Embassy wishes to inform the U.S. Senate of its view concerning this event to be undertaken at the Senate,” the letter said.
“Indeed, the U.S. Senate is not the right venue to host a group of speakers who are furtively backing ex-President Saleh and the Houthis,” it said.
But the letter from the Yemeni embassy could well backfire, as senators and their aides tend to resent attempts to stifle open debate and discussion on foreign policy.
“In general, staff have not taken kindly to this sort of engagement and have pushed back that in a democracy, as long as groups are not advocating violence, they are entitled to express their views,” one staffer told Foreign Policy.
When contacted by FP, the Yemeni embassy confirmed having sent the letter but declined to comment further.
The impetus for the letter was unclear but it was possible the Hadi government felt emboldened by the Trump administration’s tough rhetoric on Iran’s backing of Houthi rebels in Yemen and by Washington’s willingness to consider expanding U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition, staffers and experts said.
Even as the White House weighs providing more intelligence and other military help for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states fighting against Houthi forces in Yemen, international concern is mounting over the plight of civilians in Yemen, who have been subjected to indiscriminate bombing and shelling. They now face the prospect of a fully-fledged famine.
U.N. aid officials say Yemen’s civil war has produced the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with the threat of starvation now hanging over the country. As the conflict enters its third year, 18.8 million people are in need of assistance, more than seven million do not know where their next meal is coming from, and the collapse of the country’s health system has allowed diseases such as measles and pneumonia to spread rapidly.
The civilian death toll from the Saudi-led, U.S.-supported air war in Yemen has prompted condemnation from human rights groups and alarmed some lawmakers from both parties. Saudi arms sales tend to sail through Congress, but 27 senators voted against a proposed deal for tanks and other hardware last year, citing bombing raids that have hit hospitals, schools and other civilian targets.
After Trump took office, the State Department approved a proposed sale of precision-guided munitions for the Riyadh and the White House is expected to endorse the deal soon.
Dismayed at repeated cases of civilian deaths from airstrikes, the Obama administration sought to limit U.S. assistance for the Saudis and even sent an administration official to Riyadh to try to help the Gulf coalition improve the accuracy of its bombing operations. Officials in the Obama administration also debated at one point whether the United States could be considered a party to the conflict in Yemen under international law, as some rights groups have argued. In the end, lawyers in the administration concluded that the U.S. was not liable for mistakes or alleged war crimes committed by Saudi-led coalition military operations, even though Washington provides intelligence and refueling for coalition aircraft.
The Trump administration has notified Congress it plans to scrap human rights conditions that had prevented the sale of weapons to another Middle East ally, Bahrain, officials said Thursday. The Obama administration had imposed the restrictions due to concerns about the Sunni monarchy’s repression of the Shiite majority population in the tiny Persian Gulf state, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Photo credit: A Yemeni man watches a vehicle burn after a reported suicide car bombing in Huta, the capital of Yemen’s southern province of Lahj, on March 27, 2017. SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty Images