Saudi-led Coalition to "Investigate" Its Own War Crimes: Sen. Warren Demands Answers from Pentagon
August 27, 2018
Alex Emmons / The Intercept
In the aftermath of a horrific bombing that killed dozens of children aboard a school bus in Yemen, the US urged the US-backed, Saudi- and UAE-led coalition to examine and account for the loss of civilian lives. But as calls for an investigation mount, a new report from Human Rights Watch finds "fundamental problems" with the way the coalition investigates allegations of civilian harm. Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is demanding answers about the US role in aiding the Saudi and UAE bombing campaign in Yemen.
Saudi-led Coalition Team to Investigate Civilian Casualties
Is "Covering Up War Crimes" in Yemen
Alex Emmons / The Intercept
Yemenis carry the coffin of a boy who was killed by a Saudi-led airstrike during a funeral in Saada, Yemen, on Aug. 13, 2018.
(August 24 2018) -- In the aftermath of a horrific bombing earlier this month that killed dozens of children aboard a school bus in Yemen, the Trump administration urged the US-backed, Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition to examine and account for the loss of civilian lives.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called for a "thorough and transparent investigation into the incident," and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly raised the issue in a phone call with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that he supports the State Department's call for an investigation, adding that he'd dispatched a three-star general to Riyadh to "look into what happened here."
But as calls for an investigation mount, a new report from Human Rights Watch finds "fundamental problems" with the way the coalition investigates allegations of civilian harm, accusing its members of trying to "shield parties to the conflict and individual military personnel from criminal liability."
The 90-page report, released Friday, digs into the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, or JIAT, a body the coalition created to investigate civilian casualty claims after the bombing campaign began in Yemen in 2015. By its own count, the assessment team has investigated 79 incidents in which airstrikes allegedly killed or wounded civilians.
But the vast majority of its reports -- only 75 of which Human Rights Watch could actually find -- absolve the coalition of legal responsibility for the strike in question, either by claiming the coalition wasn't responsible or by determining that the attack was an "unintentional" result of technical errors.
The report also documents 17 instances in which JIAT's conclusions were profoundly at odds with Human Rights Watch's own findings. In 2015, after coalition fighters bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Yemen's capital city of Sanaa, the assessment team concluded that "there was no human damage as a result of the bombing," while interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch indicated that two patients had been injured and the hospital had been forced to shut down, endangering the 200,000 people it serves.
In the years after it was established, the Trump and Obama administrations pointed to JIAT as a sign that the coalition was aware that its attacks were killing civilians and that it was seeking to improve. But critics say the body is a cynical mechanism contrived to make it look as if the architects of the air war in Yemen care about reducing civilian casualties, when in fact their aims are something else entirely.
"For more than two years, the coalition has claimed that JIAT was credibly investigating allegedly unlawful airstrikes, but the investigators were doing little more than covering up war crimes," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Governments selling arms to Saudi Arabia should recognize that the coalition's sham investigations do not protect them from being complicit in serious violations in Yemen."
The wreckage of a bus at the site of a deadly Saudi-led coalition airstrike in Saada, Yemen, on Aug. 12, 2018.
Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP
The results of the assessment team's investigations are released on an ad hoc basis through Saudi state media, often under headlines like "JIAT Clears Arab Coalition From Responsibility For Many Bombings." The Human Rights Watch report also notes that releases seem timed to defuse international pressure.
JIAT released incident results on September 12, 2017 during discussions at the UN Human Rights Council regarding the possible creation of an international investigation into violations in Yemen; Saudi diplomats and their allies then used the released JIAT results to argue against the need for an international mechanism.
On March 5, 2018, JIAT released results immediately before Saudi Crown Prince and Coalition Commander Mohammed bin Salman travelled to the United Kingdom to meet with senior British officials.
Human Rights Watch determined that out of 75 JIAT investigations, only two had resulted in findings that officers may have violated the rules of engagement. In one case, the team found that the officers had done so, and in another, suggested that they might have and recommended further investigation.
In 12 cases, JIAT recommended giving some type of financial restitution to victims' families, referring to it variously as "assistance" or "appropriate action," though not always finding fault with the coalition. However, Human Rights Watch researchers are "unaware of any concrete steps the coalition has taken to implement a compensation process," according to the report.
The report quotes a man identified as "Yasser," whose relatives were killed in an airstrike on a water bottling factory in 2015. Yasser, whose name was changed by the report's authors for his protection, told the group that he "heard about the compensation as everyone else heard about it, through the TV," but that no one had contacted him about receiving payments on behalf of his lost relatives.
"None of the people we've spoken with have received any form of compensation or any communication about being compensated," Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept. Beckerle acknowledged, however, that secret payments may have taken place without her knowledge.
In announcing the results of JIAT's first inquiry in 2016, Saudi state media said the commission "consists of 14 members with experience and competence in military and legal fields," all from countries that were part of the coalition at that time. But the coalition has never produced a public list of the members, Beckerle told The Intercept.
In a letter last January, Human Rights Watch asked the spokesperson for JIAT to share the names of its members, whose command they fell under, and information about their legal and military experience. The group received no response.
JIAT's only publicly known member, legal adviser and spokesperson Mansour al-Mansour, is a military lawyer from Bahrain, where he was reportedly involved in the prosecution of hundreds of peaceful protestors in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. Earlier that year, Saudi Arabia invaded Bahrain over fears that unrest there could topple the monarchy.
Elizabeth Warren Demands in Letter That
US Military Explain Its Role in Yemen Bombings
Alex Emmons / The Intercept
On Aug. 12, 2018, a Yemeni child receives medical treatment at a hospital in Saada, Yemen, after he was injured by an airstrike that hit a bus he was riding earlier this week.
(August 14 2018) -- In the wake of a US-backed bombing last week that killed dozens of children on a school bus in north Yemen, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is demanding answers about how US military advisers support and oversee the Saudi and UAE bombing campaign in Yemen.
Warren sent a letter on Tuesday to Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command and top commander for US forces in the Middle East, requesting that he clarify past congressional testimony about the US role in the Yemen war.
Warren's letter referenced an article by The Intercept about an airstrike in May, based on a US intelligence report that recounts in detail, minute by minute, how the strike unfolded and American munitions were used.
Votel has previously suggested that the US has little knowledge about how Saudi Arabia and the UAE use American weapons, and does not track the aircraft missions that the US helps refuel.
During a congressional hearing in March, Warren asked Votel whether CENTCOM tracks what aircraft do after the US refuels them. He responded, "Senator, we do not." Votel also denied knowing whether US-produced munitions were used in specific strikes when the media has reported on civilian deaths.
However, earlier this month The Intercept published a detailed article about a coalition airstrike in May, which targeted a site in Yemen's Northern Saada governorate where a dozen family members slept in tents; the bomb happened to miss the tents, so the civilians survived.
The article quoted an intelligence report that includes "what appear to be comments from an American intelligence analyst" who closely supervised the strike from a coalition command center in Riyadh, suggesting that US military observers have detailed information about how strikes unfold.
Eric Eikenberry, an advocacy officer for the US-based Yemen Peace Project, told The Intercept that the existence of an intelligence report shows that coalition airstrikes are more closely supervised than Votel had indicated.
"When it comes to Yemen, the priorities of General Votel and the rest of the administration are obscene," he wrote in an email. "We knew that the United States was providing the fuel, weapons, and intelligence for coalition strikes, and now we know that the US is perfectly capable of assessing strikes on civilian targets that use US munitions."
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began bombing Yemen in March of 2015, after a rebel group commonly known as the Houthis deposed the country's Saudi-backed president. In the three years since, the countries have relied on support from both the Trump and Obama administrations, which have provided targeting intelligence, flown mid-air refueling missions for coalition aircraft, and resupplied them with tens of billions of dollars in weapons.
Warren's letter references the intelligence report in The Intercept, asking how US intelligence analysts could have produced such a complete picture of the strike if, as Votel claimed, the Pentagon is doing so little to tracking the missions.
"This report appeared to indicate that one or more US representatives were present in the Saudi command center at the time the strike was approved and executed," Warren wrote. "The reported presence of US advisors in a command center responsible for actively approving and directing such airstrikes, and the reported existence of at least one US intelligence assessment of an airstrike acknowledging the use of US-manufactured munitions, raise questions about whether the US does in fact have the capability to track the origins, purpose and results of US-supported airstrikes should it choose to do so."
Warren's letter contains a list of detailed questions about US oversight of Saudi bombings, asking about the role of US advisers in the targeting process, and whether US military officers are present in coalition command centers overseeing operations.
The letter also asks whether the Pentagon conducts "after action assessments or . . . intelligence reports summarizing coalition airstrikes in Yemen, such as the one reported by The Intercept." The letter asks the Defense Department to "provide unclassified answers . . . to the extent possible" and requests copies of the intelligence reports.
Since the beginning of the war, US-backed airstrikes have hit countless civilian targets, including schools, hospitals, and food and water infrastructures.
Last week, the US-backed coalition bombed a school bus in North Yemen, reportedly killing dozens of boys between the ages of 6 and 11. UNICEF called the strike the "worst attack on children since Yemen's brutal war escalated in 2015," and the UN Secretary General called for an "independent and prompt investigation" into the strike.
Warren's letter comes at a time of mounting frustration on Capitol Hill toward the US role in the war. In June, Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that he would hold up a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the UAE until the Trump administration answered his questions about civilian casualties and US strategy in the war.
"I am concerned that our policies are enabling perpetuation of a conflict that has resulted in the world's worst humanitarian crisis," Menendez wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
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