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Human Rights Watch: Saudi-Led Coalition Bombing Yemen with Banned U.S.-Made Cluster Munitions

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Human Rights Watch is accusing the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of dropping banned cluster bombs manufactured and supplied by the U.S. on civilian areas in Yemen. Cluster bombs contain dozens or even hundreds of smaller munitions designed to fan out over a wide area, often the size of a football field. They are banned under a 2008 treaty for the high civilian toll they can cause. The treaty was adopted by 116 countries — although not by Saudi Arabia, Yemen or the United States. According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-supplied cluster bombs have landed near rebel-held villages in northern Yemen, putting residents in danger. On Monday, the State Department said it is “looking into” the report’s allegations, adding it takes “all accounts of civilian deaths in the ongoing hostilities in Yemen very seriously.” We are joined by Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition, and Belkis Wille, Yemen and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Yemen. More than a thousand people have died since the Saudi-led bombing campaign began in late March. More than half the victims are civilian, including 115 children. The precise toll from the airstrikes is not known, because many areas are hard to reach. But the U.N. and several major human rights groups have raised the possibility of war crimes in the scores of documented bombings so far. The U.S. has played a key role in the campaign, expediting weapons shipments and providing intelligence to Saudi Arabia, including “direct targeting support” for the coalition’s strikes.

Now Human Rights Watch has accused the Saudi-led coalition of dropping banned cluster bombs manufactured and supplied by the United States. Cluster bombs contain dozens or even hundreds of smaller munitions designed to fan out over a wide area, often the size of a football field. They are banned under a 2008 treaty for the high civilian toll they can cause. The treaty was adopted by 116 countries, although not by Saudi Arabia, Yemen or the United States. According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-supplied cluster bombs have landed near rebel-held villages in northern Yemen, putting residents in danger. On Monday, the State Department said it’s looking into the report’s allegations, adding it takes all accounts of civilian deaths in the ongoing hostilities in Yemen very seriously.

For more, we go to Washington to Steve Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, involved in the preparations and formal negotiations of the 2008 convention banning cluster munitions. He’s also chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition.

Can you talk about what you understand is happening right now in Yemen?

STEPHEN GOOSE: Well, we documented airstrikes involving cluster munitions on April 17th and likely on April 27th, as well. We don’t know if ongoing strikes are occurring right now, because, as you say, it’s very difficult to get fresh information out of many of the areas. But Saudi Arabia has, in fact, acknowledged—this is not an accusation—Saudi Arabia has acknowledged that they are using these weapons. They want to claim that they’re only using them against armored vehicles. But the treaty that bans these things doesn’t ban them only in certain circumstances. It’s in all circumstances, whether you think you’re only attacking armored vehicles or civilians, because in the long run they’re going to affect civilians. That’s been proven by their use in so many other countries prior to this ban treaty.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the role of the United States here, Steve?

STEPHEN GOOSE: With respect to the cluster munitions, the U.S. supplied these CBU-105 sensor-fused weapons. They’re a more advanced type of cluster munition, but they are banned under the treaty. The U.S.—U.S.'s closest military allies, its NATO allies, almost all are part of this ban treaty, and they all agreed that these weapons, that perhaps have a lower failure rate than some other cluster munitions, also need to be banned, because they pose unacceptable dangers to civilians. The U.S. supplied them to Saudi Arabia. They've supplied them also to the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the coalition that’s conducting the airstrikes now.

AMY GOODMAN: Belkis Wille is also with us, Yemen and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch. She has been based in Sana’a for the last two years, but she’s joining us from Istanbul, Turkey. Can you talk about when you came to suspect that Saudi Arabia was using cluster munitions in Yemen, Belkis?

BELKIS WILLE: Thank you for having—

AMY GOODMAN: Belkis, I’m sorry, we’re not hearing you.

BELKIS WILLE: Sorry. I was saying, we have had concerns about the use of cluster munitions in this war because of the fact that Saudi Arabia actually used cluster munitions in 2009, when it participated in a war in northern Yemen. On the first day of the war, we issued a press release calling on the Saudi-led coalition to state on the record that it would not be using cluster munitions in this war. A press conference the next day led to a Saudi spokesman saying they were not using cluster munitions. However, several days later, we received video footage that looked very much like cluster munitions were being dropped by coalition airstrikes in northern Yemen. And several days later, we received photo evidence that showed the actual munitions, including unexploded cluster munitions on the ground in a location 36 kilometers away. We were able to match, through satellite imagery, the exact location from where the film was done, so we were able to verify that this was indeed a film made in Yemen showing the landing of cluster munitions. Unfortunately—

AMY GOODMAN: Unfortunately, yes? We’re going to have to go back to Steve—

BELKIS WILLE: Whether—

AMY GOODMAN: Belkis, go ahead. We’re having trouble with her again. Her audio stream is coming from Istanbul, Turkey. Steve, if you could take over from there. You both work with the same organization, Human Rights Watch. What has been the U.S. and Saudi response to the allegations that they’re violating a treaty, not that they’re signatories to—the U.S., Yemen and Saudi Arabia are not part of that 2008 cluster bomb treaty.

STEPHEN GOOSE: Yes, Saudi Arabia, initially—well, before we presented this evidence, they said they weren’t using cluster bombs. And then when they first saw our report, they tried to deny that these were cluster munitions, cluster bombs. But in fact, these weapons clearly are captured by the definition of a cluster munition in the 2008 ban treaty. Then, the following day, they in fact started saying, “Yes, we’re using these particular weapons, called the CBU-105, but that we’re only using them against armored vehicles.” That is still a violation of the convention. They have not signed up, but this convention is creating a new international standard of behavior which rejects any use under any circumstance, because one of the big problems with cluster munitions is not only that they spread out over a huge area during strikes and oftentimes kill and injure civilians during strikes, but many of the munitions don’t explode when they’re supposed to and end up laying on the ground and acting as landmines. And we’ve seen this kind of failure with these CBU-105s, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Steve Goose, what about the civilian casualties? And what do you think needs to be done right now?

STEPHEN GOOSE: We don’t know what kind of casualties these weapons have caused. As Belkis was mentioning, we’ve got photographic evidence and video evidence of the attacks themselves, but we’ve not been able to get to this area on the ground to do interviews and identify potential casualties. But you can bet on it that there will be civilian casualties. If they didn’t occur during the attacks, they will occur at a later date from the so-called duds that lay on the ground and act like landmines.

AMY GOODMAN: What are—

STEPHEN GOOSE: The U.S.—I’m sorry, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. Go ahead.

STEPHEN GOOSE: The U.S. has had a very muted response so far, saying they’re going to look into it. The U.S. shouldn’t be exporting any kind of cluster munition to anybody, but it does have a ban in place on export of almost all U.S. cluster munitions except this particular type, the CBU-105, because it’s one of the latest versions that, in theory, has a lower failure rate than others. We think the U.S. should abandon this loophole in its export prohibition.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Goose, I want to thank you for being with us, director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, involved in the preparations and formal negotiations of the 2008 convention banning cluster munitions, also chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition. I also want to thank Belkis Wille for joining us from Istanbul, Turkey, a Yemen and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch, speaking to us from Istanbul.

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