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As Kerry Plans to Visit Saudi Arabia, Activists & NGOs Demand U.S. Stop Funding War Crimes in Yemen

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Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Saudi Arabia as the Obama administration is facing increasing pressure for its support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. This comes as up to 100,000 people gathered in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a Saturday to protest the ongoing Saudi strikes and in support of Houthi rebels. Over the past two weeks, the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition has bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 19 people, and bombed two schools in northern Yemen, killing at least 14 children. Doctors Without Borders has since announced it will withdraw staff from six hospitals in the north of the country. For more, we’re joined by Kristine Beckerle, a fellow at Human Rights Watch. She has just returned from Yemen.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Saudi Arabia as the Obama administration is facing increasing pressure for its support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. This comes as up to 100,000 people gathered in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a on Saturday to protest the ongoing Saudi strikes and in support of Houthi rebels.

Over the past two weeks, the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition has bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 19 people, bombed two schools in northern Yemen, killing at least 14 children. Doctors Without Borders has since announced it will withdraw staff from six hospitals in the north of Yemen. After another Saudi airstrike east of Sana’a on Tuesday that killed nine, survivors spoke out against the Saudi bombing.

SURVIVOR: [translated] The air force bombs. It bombs our sons and our daughters, our men and our friends. Why are they doing this? What have we done to them?

AMY GOODMAN: According to the United Nations, more than 3,700 civilians have been killed in the Yemeni conflict since Saudi Arabia launched its offensive in March of 2015. The United States has been a key backer of the Saudi military bombing. Earlier this month, the U.S. approved the sale of more than $1 billion of new weapons to the Saudis. Since taking office, the Obama administration has approved more than $110 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

While Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Saudi Arabia, pressure is growing over the Obama administration to cut off support for the Saudis. Bills have been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate to cut off funding to Saudi Arabia. Last week, The New York Times and The Guardian editorial boards called for the U.S. and British governments to end their support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In an editorial titled “America is Complicit in the Carnage in Yemen,” The New York Times wrote, quote, “Congress should put the arms sales on hold and President Obama should quietly inform Riyadh that the United States will withdraw crucial assistance if the Saudis do not stop targeting civilians and agree to negotiate peace,” unquote.

To talk more about the situation in Yemen, we’re joined by two guests. Kristine Beckerle is just back from Yemen. She’s a fellow at Human Rights Watch. And in Washington, D.C., Andrew Cockburn is with us. He’s Washington editor for Harper’s magazine. His latest piece for Harper’s is headlined “Acceptable Losses: Aiding and Abetting the Saudi Slaughter in Yemen.” He’s author of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with you, Kristine. Talk about what you saw in Yemen.

KRISTINE BECKERLE: So, we were there basically as peace talks were breaking down and before the scaling up in the coalition airstrikes. But even then, sort of even though there was a, quote-unquote, “ceasefire,” violence was continuing sort of across the country, including coalition airstrikes. And I think the thing that really stuck out to me on this trip was that when you talked to sort of activists, members of the Houthi or sort of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s political party, the way in which they would talk about this war was not just the Saudis bombing Yemen or a Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen; it really was the Saudis and Americans bombing Yemen. And if you just sort of drive through the streets of the capital, there’s graffiti everywhere sort of saying, “American bombs are killing Yemeni civilians.”

And as I returned to the U.S., basically in the days that followed, the U.S. then approved the arms sale that you spoke of, and then we see the Saudi-led coalition bombing a school, a hospital, a potato chip factory. And so, I think the thing that really stuck out to me is that these things are not being lost on Yemenis. And Yemenis said to me, as soon as the arms deal was approved, “What is this? Why is this being approved?” So I think the thing that I’ve sort of been trying to raise repeatedly is that the U.S. is not just selling arms to Saudi, and that’s that; what they are doing is they are signaling and, in fact, supporting the Saudi-led coalition in this ongoing campaign, which has been devastating for civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you understand John Kerry is going to do in Saudi Arabia?

KRISTINE BECKERLE: So, I think the thing that I would hope John Kerry would do—I don’t know if he, in fact, will do that—is that he would raise with the Saudi-led coalition the fact that even though they have said that they will change their behavior, the behavior has obviously not changed, because this last week has been devastating, for sure, but it builds on a year and a half worth of conflict where these things are not even sort of rare anymore, which is really troubling. So, you talk about, OK, we’ve seen a school and a hospital being hit, but the U.N. found that in the first year of conflict the Saudi-led coalition was guilty of half the attacks on schools and hospitals that it documented. You talk about an MSF, or Doctors Without Borders, hospital being hit. This is the fourth time a Doctors Without Borders hospital has been hit.

And I think the thing that’s quite striking is, the Saudi-led coalition will then say to the U.S., “OK, well, we’re investigating.” And they actually released sort of initial results from some investigations a couple of weeks ago. And in those investigations, they looked at two strikes where they hit Doctors Without Borders hospitals. And then you have them, two weeks later, hitting another hospital. So we’re not seeing a change in behavior that we would need to see to feel as though they were actually serious about complying with the laws of war.

But I think, then, the last thing I’ll say on this is that it’s not just about John Kerry saying to the Saudis, “Clean up your game.” It’s about John Kerry talking to the Saudis about the fact that the U.S. itself is a party to this conflict. So it’s not just that the U.S. is selling weapons; it is that the U.S. is providing such crucial support and such substantive support that it itself is at war in Yemen. And so, it really isn’t a conversation of John Kerry pointing a finger at the Saudis, but it should be a conversation about the U.S. [role], and [how] the Saudi-led coalition [is] routinely violating international law in Yemen, so how are we going to stop this?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, how can—how can Kerry or Obama point the finger at Saudi Arabia? They just approved a $1 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia?

KRISTINE BECKERLE: Exactly. And that’s—and I think that’s my concern. So, even, for example, a couple days ago, Reuters had a report saying that U.S. advisers were being pulled out of Riyadh and that they were going to move to Bahrain. But what hasn’t happened is any sort of clarity as to what the U.S.'s actual role is in this ongoing campaign. And it's sort of unacceptable for the U.S. to say the Saudi-led coalition—”We’re concerned about Saudi-led coalition violations in Yemen,” like you say, when they continue to approve arms sales, but not only that, when they continue to refuel coalition jets on bombing campaigns, when they continue to provide intelligence support.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the weapons used.

KRISTINE BECKERLE: Yeah, so, for example, in one of the most egregious strikes that Human Rights Watch documented and the U.N. documented, it was on a village in northern Yemen, Mastaba market. And in that village, Human Rights Watch researchers went, and they found remnants of U.S. bombs in that market. And in that market that was hit, we recorded 97 civilians having been killed, and maybe 10 Houthi fighters were killed, but, even still, that’s very clearly disproportionate. And of the 97, 25 kids were killed. And these are, again, U.S. bombs used in this attack. Human Rights Watch has also found U.K. bombs, to be fair, so it’s not just the U.S. whose weapons are being used unlawfully. And I think the thing that is very clear to us is that people are sort of collecting these remnants after the attacks happen, and then it’s not that difficult sometimes to see who actually sold the bombs, because they’ll still have barcodes or information on the weapons themselves.

And sort of—so, for the U.S. to say, you know, “We’re concerned about continuing violations,” when they’re the ones giving the bombs, when they’re the ones refueling the planes, when they’re providing intelligence support, when they’re either sitting in Riyadh or Bahrain and they’re providing sort of continued assistance to this campaign, it’s—again, it’s not about pointing the fingers at the Saudis. It’s about saying what is your role in this campaign, and how are you going to sort of investigate the strikes that have already happened, where U.S. personnel may have been involved.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the U.S. doing investigations? A spokesperson for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees American operations in the Middle East, told The New York Times last week the U.S. has not conducted a single investigation into casualties, civilian casualties, in Yemen.

KRISTINE BECKERLE: That’s incredibly concerning, because, again, it is an international legal obligation for a party to the conflict to do investigations in any strike where there are credible allegations that war crimes may have been committed and its forces may have been involved. So the fact that the U.S. is sort of continually booting it to the Saudis is just not acceptable in terms of an international legal analysis and in terms of the way in which the U.S. also—it’s required based on international law, but it also should be required for American people, right? Like, there is—they should have the right to know the way in which the U.S. has been involved in this war.

And the way in which the U.S. should be dealing with this is doing investigations into a year-and-a-half conflict where unlawful strikes are routine and where its level of support is both unclear but seems to be quite substantive. So, again, it’s an obligation, and they should be doing it, because it’s—the lack of transparency, I think, that Americans have had on this war over the last year and a half is quite alarming.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Human Rights Watch calling for, finally?

KRISTINE BECKERLE: Human Rights Watch has been calling for the U.S. to do investigations into any strikes in which its personnel have been involved for a long time. We’ve also been calling for a long time for the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which is why the most recent announcement is troubling to us, because we’ve been saying for quite some time that continuing to sell arms to the Saudis is signaling support for what is going on in Yemen. And it’s not just the U.S. we’re calling for that; we’re calling for the U.K., France, the sort of big powers that continue to sell arms to the Saudis.

We’re also calling for the Saudis to be suspended from the Human Rights Council, because, speaking of investigations, one of the things that we have said for a long time is that it’s not just the Saudi-led coalition in this war that’s violating human rights. We’ve documented and written about the Houthi rebel group also violating numerous sort of human rights and international legal standards, including using land mines, child soldiers, etc. So what we’re saying is, what we really need is an international investigation into violations by all sides. The vehicle that sort of tried to do that last year was the Human Rights Council, but it was blocked. And what ended up happening was they said, “OK, we’re going to make a Yemeni national commission to do investigations.” But as we’ve seen sort of over the last year, that national commission has been basically quite one-sided and hasn’t really done the work it would need to do to meet international standards. So, what we’re saying is, one, Saudi-led—Saudi Arabia has no place on the Human Rights Council at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. Human Rights Council.

KRISTINE BECKERLE: The U.N. Human Rights Council. And second, what the U.N. Human Rights Council should be doing is creating an international investigative body into violations by all parties to this conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristine Beckerle, thanks so much for being with us, fellow at Human Rights Watch, who has just returned from Yemen. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Andrew Cockburn. His piece in Harper’s, “Acceptable Losses: Aiding and Abetting the Saudi Slaughter in Yemen.” Stay with us.

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“This is Our War & It is Shameful:” Journalist Andrew Cockburn on the U.S. Role in the War in Yemen

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