.
U

.S. arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have contributed to instability for decades, producing long-term cycles of violence across the region. This unsustainable approach is empowering autocrats like Mohammed bin Salman and non-state actors such as Ansar Allah to sustain regional conflicts and commit human rights violations in places like Yemen. The incoming Biden administration should not only reject this securitized approach to the region but use its influence to support foreign policy goals driven by international humanitarian law (IHL) principles.

The case of Yemen stands as a stark reminder of the risks associated with unhindered arms sales to the MENA region. In the span of six years, Yemen’s situation has evolved from a civil conflict between various armed groups, such as Ansar Allah (the Houthi Movement) and pro-government forces, to a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iran. Today, it is recognized as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies have warned for most of this year that the conflict in Yemen is producing famine conditions. Today, 24.1 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, with 14.3 in acute need of aid. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) predicts that 5 million people will face Phase 4 emergency food insecurity by June 2021 if current conditions are sustained, with 47,000 facing Phase 5, or famine conditions.

As these organizations argue, the food crisis in Yemen is a result of the conflict, as fighting and destruction have led to economic collapse in the region’s poorest country. The Saudi-UAE coalition sea and air blockade of Yemen, in place since March 2015, is a major contributing factor as it has severely cut off Yemen’s oil profits.

The state of the economy is best reflected by the depreciation of the Yemeni rial, which has lost three-quarters of its value since 2015. At the beginning of 2020, the exchange rate was YR582 per USD $1, leaving most unable to purchase basic supplies like food and fuel.

The destruction of infrastructure, including 131 attacks on bridges critical to the dissemination of aid by coalition forces and 81 separate attacks on medical facilities between 2015 and 2018, have also had a profound effect on public health. These deliberate attacks on public infrastructure have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 and hundreds of thousands of cholera cases across Yemen.

Coalition attacks on infrastructure across Yemen are evidence of an indiscriminate air campaign since 2014. Saudi Arabia and the UAE committed to this strategy out of security concerns, which are shared by the United States, regarding the potential for a Houthi-ran government supported by Iran in the Gulf. This reflects interests in a securitized pre-war status quo that originally involved propping up President and dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh before the youth uprising in 2011.

Ultimately, militarized attempts to end the conflict have not succeeded. Regular reporting has highlighted serious allegations of civilian harm by the Saudi-led coalition with U.S. weaponry, including the bombing of a school bus full of children in Saada in 2018. Yet while countless stories such as this exist, they have not slowed the Trump administration’s efforts to transfer arms.

Rather, the administration has stretched existing legal frameworks and civilian harm policy standards to sell more arms to the coalition, nearly doubling the trend indicator value (TIV) of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia since 2014. Additionally, the administration is working to finalize the sale of F-35 fighter jets and MQ-9 drones to the UAE in an a last-ditch effort to sustain U.S. support for the coalition.

The continuation of arms sales by the United States warrant legitimate accusations of U.S. complicity in human rights violations and war crimes in Yemen. At the same time and of equal importance are the lessons that must be learned from Yemen as weapons continue to flow to autocratic states across the MENA region.

It would be worthwhile for Biden to not follow the path of previous administrations, and instead reject deceptive arguments that support the status quo. Further, with Yemen in mind, Biden should aim to shift MENA arms sale policies from a focus on securitization to one focused on IHL principles. Such a shift will not bring justice to those lost in places like Yemen but can help to end hostilities by cutting off oxygen to the coalition war machine.

In order to bring about this shift, the Biden administration should freeze arms sales to the coalition in Yemen and institute an immediate review of all arms deals to MENA states, with a particular focus on regional powers that regularly violate IHL. The United States government has a legal obligation to do so, per Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which calls for states to “respect and ensure respect” for IHL.

Not only would this lessen war crime accusations levied against the United States, but it could stem conflict and encourage peace in places like Yemen. An end to U.S. arms flows to Saudi Arabia and the UAE would severely harm their offensive capabilities, as well as their perceptions of domestic security, and likely ripen the situation in Yemen for a ceasefire and overarching peace deal.

This can be achieved if the United States uses its leverage by ending arms flows and subsequently pressuring coalition states to come to an agreement for peace. Saudi Arabia and the UAE fight the Houthis to balance against Iran and Islamists who threaten their national security. Therefore, a diplomatic strategy leveraging this concern while cutting off aid critical to their security can entice these states, and subsequently their proxy forces, to cease hostilities.

Given the U.S. position with other MENA states, such a strategy can be replicated across the region, leading to positive policy outcomes that finally reject regional securitization via arms sales. By relying on IHL as the guiding principle in designing a new MENA policy, the United States can better leverage its capabilities through shared values that support people, and not autocrats, across the region.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander Langlois is a freelance writer covering MENA diplomacy, peace, and conflict topics at the intersection of global governance. He holds an MA in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Human Rights Over Weapons: The Case of Yemen

Ruined multi-storey buildings made of mud in the district of Marib, Yemen. By Dinos Michail via AdobeStock.

December 27, 2020

U

.S. arms sales to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have contributed to instability for decades, producing long-term cycles of violence across the region. This unsustainable approach is empowering autocrats like Mohammed bin Salman and non-state actors such as Ansar Allah to sustain regional conflicts and commit human rights violations in places like Yemen. The incoming Biden administration should not only reject this securitized approach to the region but use its influence to support foreign policy goals driven by international humanitarian law (IHL) principles.

The case of Yemen stands as a stark reminder of the risks associated with unhindered arms sales to the MENA region. In the span of six years, Yemen’s situation has evolved from a civil conflict between various armed groups, such as Ansar Allah (the Houthi Movement) and pro-government forces, to a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iran. Today, it is recognized as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies have warned for most of this year that the conflict in Yemen is producing famine conditions. Today, 24.1 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, with 14.3 in acute need of aid. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) predicts that 5 million people will face Phase 4 emergency food insecurity by June 2021 if current conditions are sustained, with 47,000 facing Phase 5, or famine conditions.

As these organizations argue, the food crisis in Yemen is a result of the conflict, as fighting and destruction have led to economic collapse in the region’s poorest country. The Saudi-UAE coalition sea and air blockade of Yemen, in place since March 2015, is a major contributing factor as it has severely cut off Yemen’s oil profits.

The state of the economy is best reflected by the depreciation of the Yemeni rial, which has lost three-quarters of its value since 2015. At the beginning of 2020, the exchange rate was YR582 per USD $1, leaving most unable to purchase basic supplies like food and fuel.

The destruction of infrastructure, including 131 attacks on bridges critical to the dissemination of aid by coalition forces and 81 separate attacks on medical facilities between 2015 and 2018, have also had a profound effect on public health. These deliberate attacks on public infrastructure have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 and hundreds of thousands of cholera cases across Yemen.

Coalition attacks on infrastructure across Yemen are evidence of an indiscriminate air campaign since 2014. Saudi Arabia and the UAE committed to this strategy out of security concerns, which are shared by the United States, regarding the potential for a Houthi-ran government supported by Iran in the Gulf. This reflects interests in a securitized pre-war status quo that originally involved propping up President and dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh before the youth uprising in 2011.

Ultimately, militarized attempts to end the conflict have not succeeded. Regular reporting has highlighted serious allegations of civilian harm by the Saudi-led coalition with U.S. weaponry, including the bombing of a school bus full of children in Saada in 2018. Yet while countless stories such as this exist, they have not slowed the Trump administration’s efforts to transfer arms.

Rather, the administration has stretched existing legal frameworks and civilian harm policy standards to sell more arms to the coalition, nearly doubling the trend indicator value (TIV) of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia since 2014. Additionally, the administration is working to finalize the sale of F-35 fighter jets and MQ-9 drones to the UAE in an a last-ditch effort to sustain U.S. support for the coalition.

The continuation of arms sales by the United States warrant legitimate accusations of U.S. complicity in human rights violations and war crimes in Yemen. At the same time and of equal importance are the lessons that must be learned from Yemen as weapons continue to flow to autocratic states across the MENA region.

It would be worthwhile for Biden to not follow the path of previous administrations, and instead reject deceptive arguments that support the status quo. Further, with Yemen in mind, Biden should aim to shift MENA arms sale policies from a focus on securitization to one focused on IHL principles. Such a shift will not bring justice to those lost in places like Yemen but can help to end hostilities by cutting off oxygen to the coalition war machine.

In order to bring about this shift, the Biden administration should freeze arms sales to the coalition in Yemen and institute an immediate review of all arms deals to MENA states, with a particular focus on regional powers that regularly violate IHL. The United States government has a legal obligation to do so, per Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which calls for states to “respect and ensure respect” for IHL.

Not only would this lessen war crime accusations levied against the United States, but it could stem conflict and encourage peace in places like Yemen. An end to U.S. arms flows to Saudi Arabia and the UAE would severely harm their offensive capabilities, as well as their perceptions of domestic security, and likely ripen the situation in Yemen for a ceasefire and overarching peace deal.

This can be achieved if the United States uses its leverage by ending arms flows and subsequently pressuring coalition states to come to an agreement for peace. Saudi Arabia and the UAE fight the Houthis to balance against Iran and Islamists who threaten their national security. Therefore, a diplomatic strategy leveraging this concern while cutting off aid critical to their security can entice these states, and subsequently their proxy forces, to cease hostilities.

Given the U.S. position with other MENA states, such a strategy can be replicated across the region, leading to positive policy outcomes that finally reject regional securitization via arms sales. By relying on IHL as the guiding principle in designing a new MENA policy, the United States can better leverage its capabilities through shared values that support people, and not autocrats, across the region.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander Langlois is a freelance writer covering MENA diplomacy, peace, and conflict topics at the intersection of global governance. He holds an MA in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.