The Senate approved the sale of $500 million worth of American weapons to Saudi Arabia Tuesday, replenishing an arsenal that has already claimed the overwhelming majority of 10,000-plus civilian lives in Yemen during its two-and-a-half-year war.
Senators voted 53-47 on Tuesday to green-light a portion of the $110 billion arms deal brokered and promoted during Trump’s first trip abroad as president in May. The split vote demonstrated growing dissent among American lawmakers, more and more of whom are uncomfortable with the U.S. military’s continued support of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. Civilians there are the ones who have borne the brunt of Saudi Arabia’s proxy war with Houthi rebels.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed their dismay on Tuesday.
“This barbaric nation should not be getting our weapons,” Republican Sen. Rand Paul said on the Senate floor. “I am embarrassed that people are out here making money and making a buck, while 17 million are living on a starvation diet.”
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who has been a vocal critic of America’s involvement in Yemen, joined Paul in his condemnation. “The United States has no business supporting a war that has only served to embolden our terrorist enemies, exacerbate a humanitarian crisis, and incite fear and anger among the Yemeni people toward the United States,” Murphy said in a statement after the vote.
“This will come back to haunt us.”
The Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis have both been accused of grave human rights violations, and mounting evidence suggests the coalition has relied on U.S. weapons and logistical support while launching indiscriminate attacks that have killed Yemeni civilians.
Human Rights Watch has counted 23 U.S. weapons that contributed to 81 “unlawful” airstrikes. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the airstrikes were “the single largest cause of casualties” in Yemen in 2016. One in three Saudi airstrikes were hitting crucial civilian and economic infrastructure such as schools and markets, a Guardian report found in 2016.
Yemen’s spiraling humanitarian crisis, in which 18.8 million people are in dire need of aid, and Trump’s increasingly cozy relationship with Riyadh have human rights advocates and humanitarian workers worried that the coalition will continue its war in Yemen with impunity.
“If the message is ‘You can have as many weapons as you want no matter how many international laws you break,’ that does not bode well for the likelihood that the Saudi-led coalition will stop its unlawful attacks, credibly investigate, take the steps it needs to take to mitigate civilian casualties, and ensure humanitarian access is facilitated as quickly and as well as possible,” said Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Democrats expressed stronger dissent over the weapons deal this time around than they did for a $1.15 billion deal made last September under the Obama administration, when just 27 senators voted against the sale.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer voted against the sale as did key lawmakers Sen. Ben Cardin and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Both Cardin and Feinstein voted in favor of the September weapons deal.
The Obama administration had a questionable track record in supporting the Yemen proxy war, but it did decide to review its support of Saudi Arabia after a coalition airstrike killed more than 100 people attending a funeral last October. That then led to an apology by the Saudis and an investigation.
“The U.S. likes to talk about the war in Yemen as if it’s someone else’s problem,”Beckerle said “But the U.S. is in this game, it’s in this war.”
The arms deal will likely further embolden the Saudi coalition at a time when a cholera outbreak has swept Yemen; 100,000 cases have been recorded in fewer than three months.
The destruction of Yemen’s economic infrastructure is the “silent killer” in Yemen, said Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy advisor. The Saudi-led coalition has suffocated Yemen’s key points of access, such as the western coast port city of Hodeidah, a hub that accounts for about 70 percent of Yemen’s inbound trade.
Paul called the U.S. Senate’s vote Tuesday an “especially critical” opportunity for the U.S. to show it didn’t unconditionally support the Saudis and their coalition. More than 40 humanitarian organizations, including OXFAM and the Center for Civilians in Conflict, wrote a letter to senators before the vote urging them to prevent the sale, and warning that selling weapons to Saudi Arabia would only “exacerbate the already dire humanitarian crisis.”
“At a time when the president appears to have solidified a transactional approach to foreign affairs,” the letter said, “it is incumbent upon Congress to ensure that moral concerns, particularly America’s commitment to defending human rights, remain a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.”