Congress Pressures Trump Administration to Restore Aid to Yemen

Lawmakers warn the administration’s aid cuts will exacerbate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, even as State Department officials worry about being on the hook for war crimes.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives to brief House members on Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the murder of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 13, 2018.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives to brief House members on Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the murder of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 13, 2018. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Congress is urging the State Department to reconsider U.S. assistance to Yemen suspended by President Donald Trump’s administration earlier this year after a plea from humanitarian groups last month appeared to fall on deaf ears, redoubling attention on years of U.S. policy missteps in the war-torn country.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provided to us, a group of more than 50 Democratic lawmakers led by Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, who chairs the Middle East subcommittee of the House’s powerful foreign-affairs panel, called on the agency to restore $73 million in aid halted in March over U.S. fears that Iran-backed Houthi rebels were seizing control of the aid and stopping distribution. 

Lawmakers said that the move has only worsened the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, where the majority of citizens face deepening food insecurity and which is struggling to stop the spread of the coronavirus. In a plea to U.S. Agency for International Development acting head John Barsa last month, aid organizations said that as fighting intensified over the summer, they were unable to provide lifesaving aid—in part because of a U.S.-imposed aid suspension to northern Yemen, which is controlled by Iran-backed Houthi rebels. 

Lawmakers cited worries that airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis have destroyed many of Yemen’s medical facilities and that escalating fighting in the Marib region has caused additional displacement of civilians, problems that threaten to get worse as United Nations-led peace talks have stalled.  

“The challenges of Yemen are multifaceted and complex. However, progress is impossible without sustained and vigorous U.S. diplomatic engagement,” the lawmakers wrote to Pompeo. “We urge you to reverse U.S. assistance cuts, redouble efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, mitigate the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, and advance a political solution to the Yemeni conflict.” 

Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is working on a companion letter to Pompeo in the upper chamber, a former U.S. official familiar with the effort said. But Republicans have refused to sign onto either effort, seeing the push to restore U.S. aid in Houthi-controlled areas as a red line, according to a House aide, though Democrats remain hopeful that Pompeo will consider restoring assistance if it is tied to diplomatic progress. The United Nations has cited a $2.7 billion funding gap to help ease the humanitarian crisis in Yemen as contributions from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have fallen off.

Congress has also been frustrated with a lack of high-level Trump administration engagement to end the conflict in Yemen, the House aide said, which comes as U.N. human rights investigators allege widespread war crimes by all parties in the conflict, including U.S.-facilitated Saudi airstrikes that have indiscriminately targeted civilians. The U.N. investigators, citing the “murder of civilians, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence,” called for the alleged war crimes to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The U.S. role in the Yemen conflict over the past two administrations has become a political lightning rodand a potential liability. Some legal experts and State Department officials fear that the United States’ backing of the Saudi coalition could put U.S. officials in legal jeopardy and implicate them in potential war crimes, according to an investigation from the New York Times

A probe from the International Criminal Court would be likely to run into jurisdictional challenges, legal experts said, as neither the United States, Saudi Arabia, nor Yemen are a party to The Hague-based tribunal’s charter. But other countries, especially in Europe, claim universal jurisdiction over potential war crimes.

Two cases that might establish legal precedent for officials liable in war crimes cases are the 1998 arrest on a Spanish judge’s request of former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet for human rights violations, which forced him into house arrest for two years in London. A group of Palestinians also tried to bring war crimes charges against then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Belgium in 2003, but the nation’s highest court ruled he could only be tried after he left office. The risk, experts say, is likely greater for higher-level policymakers. 

“The risk seems more real for people who have the knowledge and intent to say we are knowingly supporting this Saudi policy and here’s how this U.S. action supports it,” said Scott Anderson, a former State Department official now with the Brookings Institution. “That’s the essence of this aiding and abetting liability. Lower-level people might say they don’t know what they’re involved in, but that gets harder as you get higher up the chain.” 

Beyond the ICC, laws in Germany and the Netherlands allow for universal jurisdiction, which has recently allowed prosecutors in the German city of Koblenz to bring cases against alleged torturers in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. French authorities have also opened an investigation into whether the Emirati crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, has been complicit in acts of torture in Yemen. 

For the Trump administration, staunch support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has drawn criticism from a unique coalition of progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans, including some of Trump’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill. For years, lawmakers have pushed—and failed—to halt U.S. military support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen by trying to revive a Vietnam War-era resolution that would pare back a president’s ability to wage war without prior congressional approval. 

Some experts say the United States has backed itself into an impossible corner. “[The United States] ended up in this dilemma where if they don’t help the coalition, the attacks will be worse in terms of the humanitarian impact. But if you do help, you may be accused of culpability in indiscriminate attacks,” said Elana DeLozier, a research fellow and expert on Yemen at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Here we are in this dilemma, and the answer is there’s no good way out except to prevent this dilemma in the future.”

The Trump administration’s drive to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over congressional objections became the subject of an internal State Department watchdog investigation. Trump in May fired the State Department inspector general looking into the matter at Pompeo’s request. Democrats have accused top aides to Pompeo of trying to slow down the investigation, while Pompeo has denied any wrongdoing.

The Trump administration has consistently argued that it crafted no-strike lists and joint intelligence cells, and trained Saudi airmen to avoid bombing civilian targets. But the State Department inspector general’s recent investigation said those steps didn’t go far enough to mitigate the risk of innocent loss of life. 

The State Department’s decision to move portions of the report on civilian casualties to a classified annex also has raised concerns that the agency could be keeping more damning information out of the public eye, congressional aides and former officials said. 

“I think being willing and affirmatively hiding the price paid in Yemeni lives in arms sales is beyond the moral and ethical failings of this administration,” said a former U.S. official familiar with the issue who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee is investigating the circumstances surrounding the sacking of Steven Linick, the former State Department inspector general. Linick was abruptly fired in May while probing the expedited Saudi arms sales and other allegations of wrongdoing by Pompeo. 

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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