U.S. Allowing Weapons Customers to Commit Crimes Against Humanity on the Saudi-Yemen Border

Jordan Cohen and Jonathan Ellis Allen

President Joe Biden wants to sign a security agreement with Saudi Arabia despite its history of human rights abuses and, in recent actions, its reported shooting and killing of Ethiopian migrants.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report this month that documented Saudi security forces firing explosive projectiles at Ethiopian migrants and shooting them at close range, killing hundreds or even thousands between June 2022 and April 2023. According to an August 26 New York Times article, the White House knew about the atrocities that HRW has declared “may amount to a crime against humanity” but did nothing to stop them. If anything, the Biden administration increased support for the Saudi leadership, despite their extensive human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch says they have been tracking this issue at the Saudi‐​Yemen border since 2014, but that the killings noted in their report “appear to be a deliberate escalation in both the number and manner of targeted killings.”

Since Washington became aware of this massacre against refugees, it has allowed Saudi Arabia to contract with U.S. companies for $319.5 million. The deals include the design and construction of port facilities, over $65 million for anti‐​aircraft missiles, over $31 million for maintenance support services for its aviation industry, $28 million for an Airborne Warning and Control System, $27.5 million for flight training and logistics support, nearly $12 million for an intelligence analysis system, and $1.2 million for upgrades to anti‐​air missiles.

Unfortunately, it has become a bit of a pattern for Saudi Arabia to send U.S.-trained Saudi troops using American‐​made weapons to commit human rights abuses, including multiple instances this year alone. The Oxfam charity reported in January that the Saudi‐​led coalition fighting in Yemen used U.S. weapons to kill Yemeni civilians and other non‐​participants already suffering from the war.

To deflect from their crimes, the Saudi government has used “sportswashing,” including merging with the PGA earlier this year and purchasing soccer teams. Meanwhile, the White House is apparently more than happy to turn the other cheek, offering presidential fist bumps and allowing Saudi Arabia to agree to production agreements with U.S. companies rather than invoking legislation that would allow the State Department to pause and evaluate these human rights abuses before completing arms transfers.

This lack of concern over human rights is partly due to a lack of concern with the risks of U.S. weapons being used in scenarios that are not in U.S. interests. For example, U.S. weapons sales to the Saudis have led to greater American involvement in the war in Yemen because Saudi involvement in the conflict created a scenario in which the Houthis became a threat to U.S. troops stationed in Riyadh.

The Cato Institute’s Arms Sales Risk Index analyzes these risks for all U.S. arms recipients. This year’s report found that arms sales give Washington no leverage over its clients’ foreign policies. And Saudi Arabia, which regularly ranks in the top quarter of riskiest arms recipients and commits human rights atrocities nearly constantly, confirms the U.S. has no leverage.

While there is no way to get confirmation, it is likely that the Saudis used U.S. weapons—given the volume they purchase every year—to commit these heinous crimes against the Ethiopian migrants. These weapons are killing and mutilating those who have already fled human rights abuses and endured horrors at the hands of smugglers and traffickers—those seeking asylum for a better life.

Human Rights Watch has said, “Concerned governments should publicly call for Saudi Arabia to end any such policy and press for accountability. In the interim, concerned governments should impose sanctions on Saudi and Houthi officials credibly implicated in ongoing violations at the border.” Selling billions of dollars’ worth of advanced weaponry to and signing a security agreement with the Saudis does not show much concern.

There is no greater proof that the Biden administration is ignoring risk than having a war criminal committing crimes against humanity as not only a top client but also a potential ally.

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