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Trump Nominee Concedes Saudi Siege of Yemen Could Be Violating U.S. Law

Sen. Todd Young lifts a hold on the president’s pick for the next State Department legal advisor, after extracting a promise to review Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen.

A girl walks among rubbish in a slum in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Nov. 9, 2016. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)
A girl walks among rubbish in a slum in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Nov. 9, 2016. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick for the top legal advisor at the State Department has acknowledged that Saudi Arabia could be violating U.S. and international law by restricting the flow of humanitarian aid in Yemen, highlighting what appears to be an increasingly tough administration stance toward Riyadh.

In written answers to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month before her confirmation Tuesday, Jennifer Newstead moved away from the State Department’s previous policy and indicated a stricter reading of statutes that prohibit American assistance to foreign countries blocking or hindering the flow of humanitarian aid, Foreign Policy has learned.

Responding to a series of questions from Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, a Republican member of the committee, Newstead said statements from aid groups “raise a substantial question” whether the Saudi-led coalition has directly or indirectly hindered the transport of U.S. and other aid to civilians in Yemen. Newstead promised to get firm answers back to Congress on the issue within 30 to 45 days after being sworn in.

Newstead’s answers suggest that the administration could be willing to take a harsher line on its allies in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, over their conduct in the nearly three-year-old civil war in Yemen. While senior U.S. officials have sought to highlight Iran’s role in arming Houthi rebels with advanced weapons, the administration also has made high-level appeals to Riyadh to lift its de facto blockade on commercial shipments into Yemen.

Newstead’s responses cleared the way for her confirmation on Tuesday, which had been held up by Young and two other senators over concerns about the humanitarian impact of the Saudi intervention. FP has obtained the written exchange between Newstead and Young, and the documents are posted below. The exchange took place between Oct. 18 and Nov. 14.

Young, along with many human rights organizations, has condemned Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, saying the Riyadh-led coalition has consistently blocked or delayed vital shipments by air and sea to ports controlled by their Houthi rebel adversaries. They accuse Saudi Arabia of violating the Geneva Conventions as well as the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits American assistance for countries that impede the flow of humanitarian aid. (The United States provides logistical support for the Saudi campaign.)

With Newstead’s legal interpretations in hand, lawmakers will have more ammunition to hold the administration to its commitments over Saudi Arabia, aides said.

At first, Newstead stuck to the old State Department position: that Saudis would need to block all assistance to fall afoul of U.S. law. But after three rounds of detailed questioning by Young, Newstead acknowledged that if Saudi Arabia were impeding unfettered deliveries of humanitarian aid, that would be a violation of both U.S. and international law. (The president can still make an exception and keep providing assistance even if the recipient country hindered aid.)

The State Department agrees with Newstead’s interpretation of U.S. and international law, a spokesperson said, adding that, after her confirmation, Newstead “will be in a position to review the legal issues in depth with the benefit of the full range of information and expertise of the U.S. government.”

Tuesday marks the 1,000th day of the Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The civil war, which pits Iranian-backed Houthi fighters against the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and his Gulf patrons, has exacted a devastating toll on civilians.

International aid officials call it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. A shortage of fuel has caused dozens of water treatment and pumping stations to shut down, aggravating a record-setting outbreak of cholera. A United Nations report this month warned that 8.4 million people are now at risk of starvation.

The United States helps refuel aircraft, provides precision-guided munitions, and shares intelligence with the Saudi-led coalition. But the Saudis and their Gulf partners are no closer to victory after launching their intervention in March 2015.

Amid growing frustration in Congress and with Newstead’s nomination stalled, the administration in recent weeks urged Saudi Arabia to ease its restrictions on aid, and the White House took the unusual step of issuing a public statement repeating the request. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan summoned the Saudi ambassador over the issue, and senior White House officials have conveyed their dissatisfaction with the humanitarian situation. In response to U.S. pressure, the Saudis partially lifted a halt on aid and shipments to ports, but they have continued to restrict fuel and some other commercial deliveries.

Britain is also taking a tougher line. “It is very clear that if you are using starvation as a weapon you are in breach of international humanitarian law,” said Penny Mordaunt, U.K. international development secretary, during a visit to Djibouti this week. “And what I have seen on my visit is that what is being held up is aid.” 

In a phone call Tuesday with Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the two leaders agreed on “the vital importance of reopening humanitarian and commercial access to prevent famine and alleviate the suffering of innocent Yemenis.”

Saudi Arabia’s embassy was not immediately available to comment.

In Washington, Young has repeatedly pushed the White House — publicly and privately — to use its leverage with the Saudis to ease the humanitarian crisis. While acknowledging Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Houthi cross-border missile attacks, the conservative Republican warned last week that Riyadh’s siege warfare risked backfiring catastrophically.

“The worsening humanitarian crisis caused by Saudi Arabia’s actions are transforming noncombatants in Yemen into life-long enemies of Riyadh and the United States — providing opportunities for Iran that it will use to further undermine Saudi and U.S. security and economic interests, destabilize the region, and advance Tehran’s malign activities,” the senator said in a letter to the president.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who along with Young had held up Newstead’s confirmation, said he was “glad the Trump administration is starting to listen to concerns from Congress and take steps to address the needless suffering within Yemen.” But he added that rather than fueling the war, Washington should be pressing for a diplomatic solution.

Without more progress from Riyadh, Young, Murphy and other lawmakers could soon look to cut off arms sales or other military assistance to the Saudis.

“If the Saudis do not eliminate the impediments to humanitarian assistance in Yemen, there are additional legislative ways to apply pressure,” the congressional aide said.

Links to the written questions and answers between Sen. Young and the next State Department legal adviser, Jennifer Newstead, can be found here, here, and here.

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