Led by the United States, the international community has in recent days grown increasingly critical of the Syrian government for its indiscriminate use of barrel bombs on civilian populations. President Barack Obama highlighted the issue in his address to the United Nations Monday, noting that Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad “drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children,” and Secretary of State John Kerry drove the point home Tuesday by calling on Russia and Iran to force Assad to stop using these weapons.
The Iranians and the Russians, Kerry said, are “in a position, in exchange perhaps for something that we might do, they might decide to keep Assad from dropping barrel bombs,” which are essentially oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel that are rolled out the back door of military helicopters. To be sure, they are heinous weapons which are most likely illegal under international conventions.
But what about the U.S.’s close ally in the region, Saudi Arabia? What sort of reaction is there for the Saudi regime’s use of barrel bombs on civilians in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen? Of course, when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s massive violations of human rights, including its use of both cluster bombs and barrel bombs, there is only deafening silence from Washington, which continues to shower Riyadh with military assistance.
The U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia are likely a violation of the recently adopted Arms Trade Treaty, as Amnesty International explained in a fact sheet published last month. “In June-July 2015, Amnesty International researchers investigated eight airstrikes carried out by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in different parts of Yemen which resulted in scores of deaths and injuries to civilians, and demonstrated a clear failure to abide by the requirements of international humanitarian law,” noted Amnesty.
In response, Amnesty called for strict safeguards in the supply of weapons and their use In line the Arms Trade Treaty, which has been signed but not ratified by the United States:
Amnesty International is calling on States supplying weapons and ammunition to adopt a preventive approach and apply strict safeguards in order to mitigate and remove the substantial risk of the arms being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law; States must carry out rigorous risk assessments against strict human rights criteria before authorizing any arms transfer/military assistance; States must also implement robust post-delivery controls on all transfers. The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition involved directly or indirectly in air strikes or other military operations must refrain from carrying out indiscriminate attacks or direct attacks on civilians, including through the use of unguided air bombardment in densely populated areas.
In another recent report, Amnesty International pointed out that its assistance “makes the United States partly responsible for civilian casualties resulting from unlawful attacks” in Yemen. Amnesty also noted that “the countries that supplied the weapons have a responsibility to ensure that they are not used to commit violations of international law.”
The human rights group further described the situation in Yemen as dire. “Prior to the conflict, more than half of Yemen’s population was in need of some humanitarian assistance,” according to Amnesty. “That number has now increased to more than 80 percent, while a coalition-imposed blockade on commercial imports remains in place in much of the country and the ability of international aid agencies to deliver desperately needed supplies continues to be hindered by the conflict.”
Not only is the United States fueling this humanitarian disaster with its no-questions-asked weapons transfers, it is also directly assisting the Saudis with in-air refueling, combat-search-and-rescue support, and providing intelligence on target selection. It is also providing the Saudis banned cluster munitions which are being used against Yemeni civilians.
The U.S. is also directly killing Yemeni civilians through its drone strikes concentrated in the eastern part of the country, with attacks this month killing a number of innocent people. Altogether, since 2002 there have been at least 127 U.S. drone strikes on Yemen that have killed an estimated 100 civilians and injured hundreds more.
In addition, the U.S. government is providing crucial diplomatic support to the Saudi regime’s campaign at the United Nations to block a human rights inquiry into its assault on Yemen. A proposal submitted by the Netherlands last week calls for the UN Human Rights Council to launch a probe into abuses committed by all parties in Yemen, but Saudi Arabia and its key allies appear determined to prevent such an investigation.
“Saudi diplomats have robustly lobbied Asian, African and European states through their capitals or missions in Geneva,” reported the New York Times. While President Barack Obama has so far remained silent on the resolution, U.S. allies Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates “have argued for shelving [the] plans,” according to Foreign Policy journalist Colum Lynch.
Quite simply, without support from the United States military the Saudis would not be able to sustain its war either politically or logistically, lacking the capability to independently carry out airstrikes over Yemen for any period of time. Yet, when pressed about the U.S. support for Saudi war crimes, U.S. officials simply say, “I would refer you to the Saudis.”
This is why U.S. statements on Syria’s use of barrel bombs should be taken with a grain of salt. It is simply not credible for the United States to feign outrage over war crimes taking place in Syria while enabling war crimes taking place in Yemen. At the very least, there should be some consistency introduced to U.S. foreign policy which would both increase U.S. credibility and prevent the needless suffering of civilians.
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While the U.S. government pushes for the adoption of international norms on cybersecurity, including on questions of critical infrastructure protection, a grassroots effort is underway to establish binding international law to protect the rights of citizens from electronic surveillance, including the bulk collection of data exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden more than two years ago.
A campaign for a new global treaty against government mass surveillance – entitled the “The International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers,” or the “Snowden Treaty” for short – was launched yesterday in New York. While the full text of the treaty is yet to be released, an executive summary calls on signatories “to enact concrete changes to outlaw mass surveillance,” increase efforts to provide “oversight of state surveillance,” and “develop international protections for whistleblowers.”
As reported yesterday at The Intercept, “Since the Snowden revelations there has been increasing public recognition of the threat to global privacy, with the United Nations announcing the appointment of its first Special Rapporteur on this issue in March, followed by calls for the creation of a new Geneva Convention on internet privacy.”
The treaty effort is being spearheaded by the global activist organization Avaaz, working closely with David Miranda, who was detained and interrogated by British authorities at Heathrow airport in 2013 in relation to his work exposing NSA and GCHQ abuses with his partner Glenn Greenwald.
“We sat down with legal, privacy and technology experts from around the world and are working to create a document that will demand the right to privacy for people around the world,” Miranda said. Pointing out that governments and private corporations are moving to protect themselves from spying and espionage, Miranda added that “we see changes happening, corporations are taking steps to protect themselves, and we need to take steps to protect ourselves too.”
Snowden spoke via a video link at the event launching the campaign to say that the treaty effort is part of a larger movement to build popular pressure to convince governments to recognize privacy as a fundamental human right – a right already codified in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Although Article 17 of the ICCPR stipulates that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation,” some advocates believe that further elaboration is needed to ensure the full protection of privacy rights. The UN Human Rights Committee has raised concerns with the United States that its surveillance activities may violate both Articles 17 and 19, but no real changes to policy have been made.
The treaty is also necessary, Snowden said, to ensure internationally guaranteed protections to whistleblowers such as himself. Snowden cited the threat of pervasive surveillance in the United States, stating that “the same tactics that the NSA and the CIA collaborated on in places like Yemen are migrating home to be used in the United States against common criminals and people who pose no threat to national security.”
With world leaders meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia this week to review the implementation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the United States is once again being reminded how out of step it is on international norms in general and on the issue of cluster bombs in particular.
Cluster munitions scatter bomblets over a wide area, posing a grave threat to civilians in conflict zones. When they detonate over civilian areas, they tear to shreds any human being in the vicinity, ripping off limbs, killing and maiming randomly, and causing immense pain and suffering, including to children. After the cessation of conflicts, the weapons continue to pose a threat by leaving remnants that fail to explode upon impact which essentially become landmines.
As part of the ongoing global effort to eliminate these heinous weapons, the First Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions is taking place from September 7-11, including participation by stakeholders from States Parties to the Convention, signatory states, observer states, UN agencies, international and regional organizations and civil society. Notably absent is the United States, which along with about 75 other countries in the world, has refused to join the Convention.
The U.S. position is that cluster bombs, despite their indiscriminate and horrific effects on civilians, are a legitimate and necessary component of the Pentagon’s arsenal, and those of its allies such as Ukraine and Saudi Arabia which use them routinely against civilians. The U.S. insistence on maintaining a cluster munitions stockpile and providing them to other countries makes the U.S. a notable outlier in international opinion on these weapons, and is undermining efforts to eliminate them globally.
As Human Rights Watch’s Mary Wareham recently pointed out in a column for Huffington Post:
The U.S. is not a party to the international Convention on Cluster Munitions. But its reluctance to press Saudi Arabia on cluster munition use in Yemen appears to be having an impact on three close allies who are parties to that treaty. Australia, the UK and Canada want to water down language in draft documents to be issued by the First Five-Year Review Conference of the treaty, which opens September 7 in Dubrovnik, Croatia. This issue is fueling a fight that may overshadow the conference.
The advocacy group Cluster Munition Coalition issued its annual report last week finding that cluster bombs had been used in five countries over the past year: Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine and Sudan.
Although the United States may not have actually dropped these bombs directly in those five countries, it is nonetheless largely culpable for their use. As Glenn Greenwald points out in a recent article, “the U.S. has long been and remains one of the world’s most aggressive suppliers of cluster munitions, and has used those banned weapons itself in devastating ways.”
Two years ago, it was announced that Saudi Arabia would by buy 1,300 new CBU-105 cluster bombs from U.S. manufacturer Textron Defense Systems for $641 million. The announcement on Aug. 21, 2013 was criticized at the time as “a regressive step that goes against the norms of the treaty that outlawed these weapons in 2008.”
The U.S. has also personally used cluster bombs as recently as December 2009, when President Obama ordered a cruise missile strike on al-Majala in southern Yemen. That strike killed 35 women and children, and among the munitions used were cluster bombs, including ones designed to scatter 166 bomblets. The U.S. also used them extensively in its invasion of Iraq, where it dropped 10,800 cluster bombs.
“The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today in December 2003. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”
Saudi Arabia’s current use of U.S.-supplied cluster bombs in Yemen is taking a horrible toll on the civilian population there. As Human Rights Watch explains,
Banned cluster munitions have wounded civilians including a child in attacks in Houthi-controlled territory in northern Yemen. .. In one attack, which wounded three people, at least two of them most likely civilians, the cluster munitions were air-dropped, pointing to the Saudi-led coalition as responsible because it is the only party using aircraft. In a second attack, which wounded four civilians, including a child, Human Rights Watch was not able to conclusively determine responsibility because the cluster munitions were ground-fired, but the attack was on an area that has been under attack by the Saudi-led coalition.
These weapons have been supplied to Saudi Arabia by the United States, which knowingly and tacitly supports their use in Yemen. As a recent report in U.S. News made clear,
The U.S. knows the Saudi government has employed cluster bombs in its ongoing war against Shiite Muslim rebels in neighboring Yemen, but has done little if anything to stop the use of the indiscriminate and deadly weapons during what has become a human rights catastrophe in one of the Arab world’s poorest countries.
With watchdog groups warning of war crimes and attacks striking civilians in Yemen, the Pentagon declined to comment publicly on whether it has discussed cluster bombs with Saudi Arabia or encouraged its military to cease using them, deferring all such questions to the State Department. But a Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, tells U.S. News “the U.S. is aware that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions in Yemen.”
Despite not having ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the United States is still bound by international law to prevent its weapons from being used in violation of international accords such as the Geneva Conventions, as HRW Director Ken Roth recently explained on Democracy Now:
As you note, the fact that the relevant countries have not ratified the cluster munitions treaty, while it would be helpful to do so, it’s not decisive, because all of them have ratified the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit indiscriminate warfare. And cluster munitions are, by definition, indiscriminate. They scatter over wide areas, so they should never be used in civilian-populated areas to begin with. Plus they leave a residue. Not every munition explodes on contact with the ground, and they become antipersonnel land mines for people to just stumble upon and die. So the U.S. should be using pressure on the Saudis not to be using these weapons at all, but certainly not to be using them in populated areas where, as we’re seeing, Yemenis are being killed.
Discussing how out of step the U.S. is with the rest of the world, Roth said, “as most nations of the world want to ban these inherently indiscriminate weapons, the U.S. has a huge arsenal of them, it doesn’t want that arsenal limited, and it hates the idea of treaties that are restraining the Pentagon on humanitarian grounds.”
Yet, in spite of U.S. intransigence, the stigmatization of cluster bombs continues to gain momentum.
As of last month, 117 countries had joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, of which 95 are States Parties. At the review conference in Dubrovnik this week, participants will be focused on how to expand the universalization of the treaty, promote storage and stockpile destruction, enhance risk reduction education, develop international cooperation and assistance, promote transparency, ensure compliance, develop national implementation measures, and facilitate implementation support.
As the International Committee of the Red Cross explained before the conference began, one of its overriding purposes is to raise the political costs for rogue states such as Saudi Arabia and the U.S. who insist on using these weapons to achieve their geopolitical goals:
[I]f we are to put an end for all time to the suffering and casualties caused by cluster munitions, the stigmatization of these weapons must continue to be strengthened. In the ICRC’s view, any use of cluster munitions by any party is unacceptable. In this respect, I am heartened by the condemnations and deep concern expressed by many States Parties about the use of cluster munitions in recent armed conflicts. The international community must never be complacent about the use of these weapons or their severe consequences in humanitarian terms.
While it may be a long time coming before the United States begins to respect international norms on cluster bombs, its shameful record on this issue should raise doubts any time a U.S. government official speaks about international norms or human rights in any other context. In this way, its isolation could continue to grow and its credibility eroded — at which point it may have to make a choice between its beloved cluster bombs or its position as a world power.