United States Senate Passes Resolution to Halt US Support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen

14 December 2018 – Yesterday, the United States (US) Senate voted to 56-41 to pass a joint resolution calling on the US to halt its support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The bipartisan Senate Joint Resolution (S.J.Res 54) – co-sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT) – passed a procedural discharge vote on 28 November, 63-37, and received enough votes to open up a debate in the Senate on Wednesday, 12 December. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the Senate’s vote on the joint resolution, yet remains concerned that Senators continued to offer amendments signaling support for the war in Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition.

Initially introduced on 28 February 2018, S.J.Res 54 is a rebuke of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war and crisis in Yemen as well as of the US government’s failure to seek approval from Congress to engage in hostilities through substantial material and logistical support. The joint resolution draws weight from the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and was initially tabled in March, before being picked up again with broad bipartisan support in the wake of the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The US administration’s weak stance on the killing and failure to hold high level Saudi officials responsible, based on CIA assessments of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) involvement, stoked incredulous responses on both sides of the aisle. With this, the second attempt to pass S.J.Res 54 has now largely been seen as not only a criticism of US engagement in the war in Yemen, but an additional rebuke against the kingdom for murdering the Washington Post columnist. Since the joint resolution has been opened for debate before the Senate, several Senators had proposed additional amendments.

Amendments from Senators Sanders and Todd Young (R-IN) seek to further restrict the support that is be offered to Saudi Arabia in Yemen – including in-flight refueling for non-US aircraft fighting in Yemen (Young’s amendment #4080) – and ensure that the resolution is not misconstrued as authorization for military forces in Yemen (Sanders’ amendment #4105). On the other hand, these proposed amendments were accompanied by a set of dangerous changes proposed by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and John Cornyn (R-TX) – Cornyn’s amendments #4090, #4095, and #4096, Cotton’s amendments #4097 and #4098 – would grant the president leeway to assess the risks associated with withdrawing support for Saudi Arabia, but would also give him space to broaden US engagement and support in the war.

Cotton’s amendment #4098 served as a particular threat, as it would have added exceptions to the removal of US armed forces that would include “support efforts to disrupt Houthi attacks against locations outside Yemen, such as ballistic missile attacks, unmanned aerial vehicle attacks, maritime attacks against United States or international vessels, or terrorist attacks against civilian targets.” While the amendments introduced by Senator Cotton were not adopted, Senator Cornyn’s amendments were adopted.

Though the joint resolution passed in the Senate, the proposal and inclusion of such detrimental amendments serves to emphasize the discord within Congress in coming to an agreement on the US role in the war in Yemen. But while the Senate was able to surmount some of this discord, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has continuously refused to take up legislation that would address US support for the war. Representatives like Congressmen Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA) have long openly opposed US involvement in the war in Yemen. In August, Congressman Lieu sent a letter to the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General calling for an investigation into whether U.S. personnel supporting Saudi and Emeriti coalition operations in Yemen were violating US regulations, the Law of Armed Conflict, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, federal statutes, or international law in their capacity as support for the Saudis and Emiratis. Despite wide support in the House, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has instead pushed language, hidden in the 2018 Farm Bill, that would prohibit the current Congress from applying the War Powers Resolution to resolutions relating to Yemen. Ryan’s language narrowly passed by three votes – 206-203 – as the House of Representatives have effectively stalled yesterday’s Senate advances towards halting US support to Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

As the White House continues to dismiss calls to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for abuses in Yemen and in the case of Khashoggi, Congress’s failure to relay a unified message only continues to hamper any progress in taking a sterner look at the Gulf kingdom and preventing a deepening culture of impunity across the Gulf region. In addition to Jamal Khashoggi, governments have targeted dissidents with little accountability. Saudi Shia cleric and social justice activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was targeted by the Saudi government for his activism, saw charges brought against him, including disobeying the ruler, that criminalize freedom of expression. Despite this, he was ultimately executed after an unfair trial with authorities receiving minimal repercussions. In Egypt, Italian postgraduate student Giulio Regeni was tortured and murdered for researching trade unions in the country, but Egyptian authorities have stonewalled calls for an investigation.

In Bahrain, authorities tortured Kareem Fakhrawi to death in 2011. Fakhrawi was the cofounder of the independent Al-Wasat newspaper, and the minimal prison sentence for the officials responsible showed an astounding lack of accountability in what was a blatant attack on free expression. Bahraini photojournalist Ahmed Ismail Hassan was killed at protests surrounding the Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2012 – shot with live ammunition in the leg, severing a major artery – and witnesses note that he appeared to be targeted for carrying his video camera, covering the protest in his capacity as a journalist. In Bahrain, the targeting of dissidents persists. On 27 November 2018, Bahraini footballer Hakeem AlArabi was detained under an INTERPOL Red Notice in Thailand. Despite holding refugee status in Australia, Bahrain requested a Red Notice against him – in violation of the INTERPOL Executive Committee’s formal policy –and used INTERPOL to target him as a dissident.

“The vote on the Senate joint resolution on Yemen is a critical turning point in the United States relationship with Saudi Arabia,” says ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “However, the United States repeatedly fails to present a single unified voice calling for Saudi Arabia’s accountability both in Yemen inside the kingdom. The efforts of Senators to wholly undermine yesterday’s legislation illustrates persistent, diverging agendas – one concerned with human rights, and the other more so with preserving a partnership with a flagrant rights abuser. The inability to prioritize human rights, even in a resolution with such wide bipartisan support, will only hamper any efforts of ending US support for a war that Congress never authorized and the American people never had a say in. In the House, the fact that Republican leadership would manipulate another piece of legislation to actively thwart a resolution that has seen such wide support, including from the international community, is deeply unfortunate. Where the administration will not stand strong, the US Congress must not and cannot fail to do so. Members in both houses must get on board for there to be any hope of sending a strong message of accountability to Saudi Arabia, and also to the other Gulf states.”

Yesterday’s vote serves as a landmark step in not only withdrawing US support to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, but for sending the Saudi government a message the US will hold it accountable for its rights abuses. We observe the passage of S.J.Res 54, but remain concerned over the provisions suggested by Senators Cotton and Cornyn and attempts to undermine these efforts by both Senators and Representatives in the House. We call on legislators in both houses of Congress to push a united front in holding Saudi Arabia accountable at the international level, and call for members of the international community to do the same. Unless Congress can maintain a unified voice in this fight, any attempt at taking a firm stance towards the kingdom will continue to fall short.