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Human Rights Advocates: U.S.-Backed Saudi Offensive in Yemen a “Dark Mark” on Obama’s Presidency

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Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Yemen this week to protest the first anniversary of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led offensive against Houthi rebels. The protests were said to be the largest in Yemen since demonstrations in 2011 forced the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since last March, more than 6,000 people have been killed in Yemen, about half of them civilians. “Yemenis are asking me, ’Why is there no global outrage when our schools, our universities, our hospitals, our clinics, when football fields, when playgrounds are bombed with U.S. bombs?” says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. Her recent piece for the Los Angeles Times is headlined “The U.S. is quietly helping Saudi Arabia wage a devastating aerial campaign in Yemen.” Meanwhile, the U.S. launched air attacks on al-Qaeda in southern Yemen, killing 14 people described by local sources as suspected militants. We also get response from Farea Al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. He is also the co-founder and chairman of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. In 2013, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. secret drone program.

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Video squareStoryNov 09, 2017Yemeni Journalist: Saudi Arabia’s Total Blockade on Yemen is “Death Sentence” for All
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Yemen, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the first anniversary of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led offensive against the Houthi rebels. The protests were said to be the largest in Yemen since demonstrations in 2011 forced the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This is one protester, Ibrahim al-Ubaidi, speaking at Saturday’s demonstration.

IBRAHIM AL-UBAIDI: [translated] Today, all Yemenis, from all different sects and regardless of their political affiliations, came out today in the masses, a crowd of over a million, to show the world that the Yemeni people can never be shaken nor defeated.

AMY GOODMAN: Since the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led intervention began last March, more than 6,000 people have been killed in Yemen, about half of them civilians. According to UNICEF, nearly 10 million children are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, and 320,000 are at risk of severe acute malnutrition. Meanwhile, the U.S. launched air attacks on al-Qaeda in southern Yemen, killing 14 people described by local sources as suspected militants.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Beirut, Lebanon, we’re joined by Farea Al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. He’s also the co-founder and chair of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. In 2013, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. secret drone program. And we’re also joined by Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. Her recent piece in the Los Angeles Times is headlined “The U.S. is quietly helping Saudi Arabia wage a devastating aerial campaign in Yemen.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sarah Leah Whitson, explain what the U.S. is doing in Yemen.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: What the U.S. is doing goes well beyond providing military assistance, as in the weapons that are actually being used in this war. What’s less known and less understood, and what the U.S. government has been very deliberately vague about, is that the U.S. is actually sitting in the Riyadh Command Center providing targeting assistance—this is what they’ve told us—as well as providing refueling for aircraft. Now, the targeting assistance, it is what’s most problematic, because we don’t know whether they’re providing targeting assistance on a strike-by-strike basis, whether they’re just reviewing the strike lists, whether they’re actually telling the Saudis what they should strike. And that is what we are asking the United States to come clean about. We want to know exactly which strikes the U.S. government has provided assistance for.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve also documented the use of—by the Saudis, of cluster bombs in their attacks. Could you talk about that, as well?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Yes. So, the U.S. and the United Kingdom have both sold cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. And now we have documented finding in strikes the duds of American-made cluster munitions. Recently, some British-made cluster munitions were also found. These cluster bombs were used in civilian areas and civilian sites, including, for example, Sana’a University, where there were remnants of cluster munitions.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the issues you emphasize in your Los Angeles Times piece is that Saudi Arabia has been on what you call a “global arms shopping spree” and is now the world’s largest purchaser of weapons.

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: It’s true. It’s a petrodollar-funded acquisition campaign, and it has been going on for a long time. The figures I cited of their purchases from the United States just last year of $20 billion is just a piece of it. They are a shopper from many, many European countries. And if you look at the arms that they’ve been buying for the past two decades, the figures are just staggering. What I think is even more surprising is that UAE, with a population of less than a million people, a fighting-age population of, you know, a couple of 20,000 or 30,000 men, is the fourth largest purchaser of weapons and is fighting, actively fighting, in five wars. It’s just—it’s very hard to comprehend the purpose of these weapons, but it’s very clear that the narrative of a Sunni-Shia war, of this enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is very, very lucrative for defense companies.

AMY GOODMAN: And how much are U.S. companies profiting?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, just last year, $20 billion. If you look a five-year ratio—and the figures are not always easy to come by, because they’re hidden sort of as contracts and when they’re going to be fulfilled and when they’re not going to be fulfilled—the figure just from the United States is well over $50 billion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Farea Al-Muslimi, I’d like to ask you to talk about the humanitarian crisis that’s resulting from these constant attacks and bombardments on Yemen.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Sure. I mean, this is something that has been going through the last year. The humanitarian situation has gotten really bad, or really worse than it was. What’s, I guess, more striking in this war in Yemen is humans are kind of the weakest cycle in this intense fighting happening between the Houthis and between the Saudis, whom—both sides have very little, if any, consideration for humanitarian laws and for international war laws. This is a serious issue because it’s not just the bombing that has—you know, and the extensive fighting that has been killing civilians, but also the imposed internal and external siege on the country have made medicine, food and all sorts of basic lives close to impossible to get in some areas, even if you had the cash. The problem of fuel shortages, the problem of—has created a lot of—or much of a black market, much of a black market around Yemen.

But more importantly, despite the fact, you know, both sides, the Houthis and the Saudis, have been claiming to fight each other, actually, the biggest payer or the biggest consequences of this war have been civilians around Yemen, not, I think—I’m pretty sure that the 6,000 figure of those died the last year are much less than they are actually—they are actually in the ground. I’m sure it’s much, much more than this. It’s just very hard right now to document, to travel around the country, and it’s very hard for international media to continue following the news in Yemen. There is obviously other crises in the region, like Syria, Libya, that has gotten a lot of attention, comparatively speaking, to Yemen, and have, in a way—in a way or another, have made Yemen’s space in the international media and in the international even aid work attention very much limited than it actually needs or much less than the catastrophe on the ground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Farea, I want to go to—back to 2013, when you testified in Washington on Capitol Hill about the U.S. drone war. You spoke a week after your home village was hit by a U.S. drone strike.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: What Wessab’s villagers knew of the U.S. was based on my stories about my wonderful experiences here. The friendships and values I experienced and described to the villagers helped them understand the America that I know and that I love. Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab.

This is not an isolated incident. The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis. I have spoken to many victims of U.S. drone strikes, like a mother in Jaar who had to identify her innocent 18-year-old son’s body through a video in a stranger’s cellphone, or the father in Shaqra who held his four- and six-year-old children as they died in his arms. Recently in Aden, I spoke with one of the tribal leaders present in 2009 at the place where the U.S. cruise missiles targeted the village of al-Majalah in Lawdar, Abyan. More than 40 civilians were killed, including four pregnant women. The tribal leader and others tried to rescue the victims, but the bodies were so decimated that it was impossible to differentiate between those of children, women and their animals. Some of these innocent people were buried in the same grave as their animals.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Farea Al-Muslimi, the response of the members of Congress when you testified afterwards? And obviously, nothing much has changed in terms of the drone strikes, but your assessment of the impact that this is having on Yemen?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: I mean, clearly, the issue of the U.S. policy in Yemen is not, you know, since last year, since it started, unconditionally supporting the Saudis in this big warfare, but even goes back to 2013 and much before that, when it conducted a lot of airstrikes, but also drone strikes, around Yemen. What’s, I guess, you know, as much as—and this is not just something new, but I think something that will always carry with the legacy of a President Obama, which is, you know, compared to his relative success in Cuba, with the nuclear deal, Yemen has been one of the big dark marks in his eight years in the presidency. First of all, you know, he used the drones in one year comparatively much more than even Bush used in eight years. But then it went on to this support of unconditional airstrikes in Yemen with the Saudis.

But even more—I think even much more dangerous than the arm deals is this international protection at the U.N. Security Council. Let’s not forget, last year, the United States and the United Kingdom and much of the big powers blocked the attempt to create an international investigative committee on war crimes that have been possibly committed in the conflict in Yemen. Despite the fact there has been a clear evidence of multiple war crimes have been committed, the United States and a lot of the Western countries have blocked any attempt to investigate this, have even provided an easy path and easy, comfortable support for the coalition in the U.N. Security Council, but overall in the Western decision-making cycles.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the media coverage, Farea? And I want to put that question to Sarah Leah Whitson also. Where is the media spotlight on the catastrophe that is Yemen right now?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: I mean, it’s unfortunately not as much as it should be, very, very limited. But there is kind of also strict rules have been imposed by both the Houthis and the coalition and the legitimate government. Both are not, obviously, doing anything good around the country, so they have imposed strict conditions and strict lines against, you know, even attempting to travel to the country, or even very, very strong, tight or very oppressive, even on those journalists around the country—even those right now in Sana’a or in Yemen have been jailed multiple times. And some have been used as human shields by the Houthis. At the same time, other journalists have been killed in airstrikes around the country. So, it’s—you know, it’s a problem where there isn’t already much correspondents and much media in Yemen, but even it has just got much worse since this last coalition or since this last war started earlier last year.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Sarah Leah Whitson, what you think the media needs to pay attention to?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, I was just in Yemen last week, and I can say that it’s very hard for international media to operate in Yemen, particularly to get out of, for example, Sana’a, because it’s just simply very dangerous. And airstrikes are a real, live threat. There are land mines, there are cluster munitions. It’s a very high security risk for journalists to get out, particularly to the areas that have been the worst struck. We’ve been trying to do our best in that circumstance. Very brave U.N. workers have been trying to do their best to get aid. But it’s not an easy war to cover.

What I find more disturbing, understanding the limited coverage, is the absence of a framing of a narrative into the terror that’s being brought on the Yemeni people. You know, there’s this global outrage when Brussels Airport and a coffee shop is struck, and Yemenis are asking me, “Why is there no global outrage when our schools, when our universities, when our hospitals, when our clinics, or when football fields, when playgrounds are bombed with U.S. bombs? Where is the outrage at attacks on civilians here in Yemen?” And the absence of that parallel framing, of that comparison, is very, very difficult for Yemenis to understand.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the prospects for some kind of a negotiated settlement or peace between the warring factions?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, we can hope for it. Every time there’s a major attack on civilians, like the recent attack on a marketplace where Saudi bombs killed over a hundred civilians, and there is a bit of outrage from the U.N. that comes from that, the Saudis immediately talk about a ceasefire and a peace process. Clearly, the war is going very badly for the Saudis, in that they’re not effectuating their gains, they’re not displacing the Houthis from power, they’re not able to restore former President Hadi to power. And there’s a lot of pressure domestically on Saudi Arabia to wrap it up. The Emirates already wants out. They’ve reduced their troops by half. They realize this was not a good idea. So I think there are a lot of pressure, good pressure points to get Saudi to wrap up this war, end this war. But whether that will bring peace to Yemen is very hard to say, because the country has been so seriously disrupted, not just politically, of course, but on a humanitarian scale.

AMY GOODMAN: You were very critical, Farea Al-Muslimi, of The New York Times op-ed, “Yemen’s President: A Path to Peace.” What did you object to?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Well, it’s not objection, but, I mean, very few people would make people like, you know, Hamid Karzai or Nouri al-Maliki look fine. Unfortunately, our president is one of those people. I mean, there has been so much happening in Yemen and so much destruction have been done the last year and a half and before that, and it is very hard to imagine the Houthis’ ability to have done this harm or for the Saudis, if it was not for his and his Cabinet’s misperformance around the country and in their—in achieving their duties. It’s very hard to see the president claiming 85 percent of the country is liberated, while he’s still outside the country, while still remotely.

There has been serious issues in Yemen. There has—a lot of political failure has happened the last three years. And unfortunately, you know, whether the president or the Houthis or the team that has been running the country are a big part of this problem. And it’s very hard to imagine any way forward with this mentality of blaming or of mentality of, you know, not taking responsibility of what they should have done in Yemen over the last few years. It’s hard to imagine that anything could have been fixed or could be fixed in the near future, as we are still having this big failure by the government, but also this failure to act upon the international resolutions, 2216. And it’s a serious issue. For example, we have Hadhramaut in the east side of the country, where it’s literally taken by al-Qaeda, one of the richest and one of the biggest areas in Yemen, while the Cabinet and the president and the government has done nothing to liberate this from al-Qaeda. It’s a very serious issue we have in Yemen that, you know, not just the Houthis and not just all of this coup sides by Saleh, but also by the government and by the regime that is not doing what it should have been doing since the last four years.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Sarah Leah Whitson, finally, in our last minute, how hard is it to find out what the U.S. is doing in Yemen right now? And what should the U.S. know, people, the U.S. population, know?

SARAH LEAH WHITSON: Well, more importantly, the U.S. population should know that the United States government is actively fighting in this war. According to the laws of war, it is a party to the conflict. It’s helping. It’s fighting alongside Saudi Arabia, supporting the war in Yemen, that is indiscriminately bombarding Yemeni children, Yemeni schools, Yemeni hospitals. And it will be very hard for President Obama to complain about violent extremist attacks that attack Paris and Brussels, even Ankara, when our weapons and our military personnel are assisting Saudi Arabia commit terrible attacks on Saudi schools and Saudi hospitals. That’s going to come back to us. To the U.S. government, we have an open question: What are you targeting? Tell the American people what you are targeting in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, and I thank you so much for being with us. Sarah Leah Whitson is executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. We’ll link to her piece in the Los Angeles Times, “The U.S. is quietly helping Saudi Arabia wage a devastating aerial campaign in Yemen.” And thanks so much to Farea Al-Muslimi, speaking to us from Beirut, Lebanon, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center there in Beirut and co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.

That does it for our show. The Democracy Now! 20th anniversary tour begins next week. I’ll be in Ithaca on April 6; Columbus, Ohio, on the 8th; St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri, and Kansas City on the 9th; Los Angeles and Santa Barbara on the 10th. And the 100-city tour continues from there; check our website at democracynow.org.

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