Trump: Cherry-Picking International Law

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by Derek Davison

In drafting a resolution seeking to condemn Iran for its role in Yemen’s ongoing civil war, the United States—along with its UN Security Council allies Britain and France—seems to have cherry-picked information from a UN report that condemned all actors in that war for violations of international law. Rather than draft a resolution reflecting the broad range of crimes that have been committed in Yemen, the Trump administration chose to selectively pick out only those crimes that could be attributed to Iran while ignoring arguably more heinous crimes attributable to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, including the internationally recognized government of Yemen.

The draft U.S.-British-French resolution—which Russia seems likely to veto if it comes to a vote in its current form—would condemn Iran for failing to prevent its weapons, and in particular its ballistic missile parts, from getting into Yemen. Those weapons have been used by the Houthi rebels who now control much of northern Yemen. In a report to the Security Council made in late January, UN investigators found that Iranian military equipment has gotten to the Houthis in violation of a UN-imposed arms embargo:

The Panel has identified missile remnants, related military equipment and military unmanned aerial vehicles that are of Iranian origin and were brought into Yemen after the imposition of the targeted arms embargo. As a result, the Panel finds that the Islamic Republic of Iran is in non-compliance with paragraph 14 of resolution 2216 (2015) in that it failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of Borkan-2H short-range ballistic missiles, field storage tanks for liquid bipropellant oxidizer for missiles and Ababil-T (Qasef-1) unmanned aerial vehicles to the then Houthi-Saleh alliance.

The report made no claims as to whether Iran supplied this equipment directly, but an Iranian failure to prevent the Houthis from acquiring it is enough to violate the embargo. The draft resolution would authorize the Security Council to impose sanctions against Iran for “any activity related to the use of ballistic missiles in Yemen.” It undoubtedly reflects Donald Trump’s desire for the international community to “get tough” with Iran, a desire also reflected in his demands that European allies sanction Iran over its missile development program lest the United States withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA).

However, in its zeal to punish Iran, the United States has clearly employed a double standard to the Yemen conflict. Despite the resolution’s tight focus on alleged Iranian misdeeds, the Security Council report on which it is based tells a much different story—one in which every actor in Yemen has been guilty of war crimes (emphasis mine):

Throughout 2017, there have been widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by all parties to the conflict. The air strikes carried out by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the indiscriminate use of explosive ordnance by Houthi-Saleh forces throughout much of 2017 continued to affect civilians and the civilian infrastructure disproportionally. The Panel has seen no evidence to suggest that appropriate measures were taken by any side to mitigate the devastating impact of these attacks on the civilian population.

The rule of law is deteriorating rapidly across Yemen, regardless of who controls a particular territory. The Government of Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Houthi-Saleh forces have all engaged in arbitrary arrests and detentions, carried out enforced disappearances and committed torture. The Houthis have summarily executed individuals, detained individuals solely for political or economic reasons and systematically destroyed the homes of their perceived enemies. The Houthis also routinely obstruct humanitarian access and the distribution of aid.

Following the missile attack on Riyadh on 4 November 2017, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition ordered the closure of all land crossings into, and all seaports and airports in Yemen. Entry points under the control of the Government of Yemen were quickly re-opened, while those under the control of the Houthis, such as Hudaydah, remained closed for weeks. This had the effect of using the threat of starvation as an instrument of war.

The use of starvation as a weapon is, as the UN has made clear with regards to the Syrian civil war, a war crime. But the draft resolution is silent on this point.

Nor does it have anything to say about the obstruction of critically needed humanitarian supplies, like medicine to combat Yemen’s cholera epidemic. The UN report found that both the Saudi-led coalition and the rebels are guilty of blocking aid—the Saudis by preventing it from entering the country either by air or sea, and the rebels by interfering with its delivery when it does get through the Saudi blockade.

Among many other examples, the UN report found that the Saudi-led coalition is deliberately targeting civilian populations in its airstrikes. Investigators studied 10 coalition airstrikes in 2017 that caused at least 157 deaths and found that all but one of them targeted civilian structures: “five residential buildings, two civilian vessels, a market, a motel and a Government of Yemen forces location.” Contrary to repeated Saudi assurances that its forces do not target civilians, the investigators argued that “the use of precision-guided weapons is a strong indicator that the intended targets were those affected by the air strikes” and that “in all cases investigated, there was no evidence that the civilians in, or near this infrastructure, who are prima facie immune from attack, had lost their civilian protection.” Even if the targets themselves were valid under international law, the report contends that “it is highly unlikely that the principles of international humanitarian law of proportionality and precautions in attack were respected.”

The UN says that most of the civilian casualties in Yemen have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes. The Trump administration has made its indifference to civilian casualties clear, but intentionally targeting non-combatants remains a war crime. Yet the draft resolution is also silent on this point.

Torture remains a war crime as well. Last June, the Associated Press reported on the maintenance by the United Arab Emirates of “a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme.” At that time it found evidence that at least 2,000 Yemeni men had disappeared into those prisons ostensibly amid a campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While the AP found no evidence that US officials were directly participating in prisoner abuse, it did find that they were conducting interrogations in these facilities and were receiving transcripts of Emirati interrogation sessions conducted under torture.

Here, too, the draft resolution is silent.

The draft resolution’s many silences are deafening. They have to do not only with the Trump administration’s obsessively anti-Iran Middle East policy, but also with the fact that the United States has aided and abetted almost all of the war crimes noted above. An honest appraisal of the many atrocities that have been visited upon Yemen over the past three years would certainly put America at the top of the list for condemnation, and so naturally the US government wants to ignore those crimes and point the finger at Iran instead.

Photo: Donald Trump with Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

One Comment

  1. Now we see why the world is in such disarray. Dishonesty , dishonesty, dishonesty is the hallmark of these so called powers in the security council.

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