Assessing Liability for War Crimes in Yemen

By Asli Bali
Submitted to Session P4734 (International Law in the Contemporary Middle East: Impeding or Facilitating Violence? (Part 1), 2017 Annual Meeting
Human Rights;
The war in Yemen has devastated the country’s infrastructure, claimed over 10,000 lives (by conservative estimates as of January 2017) and displaced millions. Hundreds of thousands of children are at risk of malnutrition and starvation and the conflict has triggered one of the worst humanitarian crises in the region. One part of this toll may be attributed to the American drone campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But by far the larger measure has been caused by the Saudi military campaign against the Houthis, which has been riddled with strikes against civilian targets. In this paper, I will explore how the U.S. has sought to shield itself from accountability for Saudi violations of the laws of war even as it has supported the Saudi-led coalition bombing of Yemen. I develop a framework to assess, based on ICRC guidance, the degree to which the provision of refueling, intelligence and logistics support to the coalition generates liability for war crimes. I will also analyze the danger of the precedent set by the Obama administration to shield its actions from scrutiny and accountability. A strategy of stealth engagement avoids both American casualties and any public accountability, but results in the same reckless destruction and destabilization as other U.S. counterterrorism operations. Holding the United States accountable for war crimes in Yemen is essential to the integrity of the laws of armed conflict and may also be one of the few remaining levers of resistance to an imperial presidency deploying unconstrained force globally under cover of counter-terrorism.