US Government Watchdog Finds Flawed Weapons Monitoring in Yemen

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A delegation from Saudi Arabia examines models of military equipment at the Dubai Airshow 2021, in the UAE on November 14, 2021.
© 2021 Andrea DiCenzo/Getty Images

A new internal report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) – the congressional watchdog – found serious gaps in US government oversight of how arms sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are being used. These findings show that Congress needs to get more involved in these weapons sales.

Human Rights Watch and others have warned for years that US-made weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be being used to commit war crimes in Yemen and that US officials could be implicated. We called for a suspension of these sales. Successive administrations argued they were tracking civilian casualties in Yemen and helping the coalition mitigate them through better targeting.

But the GAO report, obtained by Human Rights Watch, indicates that they’re likely not doing enough. Despite credible reports from the United Nations and civil society monitors detailing laws-of-war violations and likely war crimes, neither the State nor Defense Departments could, according to the report, “provide evidence” that they had “investigated any incidents of potential unauthorized use of equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia or UAE.”

That’s why congressional oversight remains essential. In fact, what we know from the GAO report comes largely because of Congress’ reporting requirements.

What more should Congress do?

First, press the GAO to publish the full report. US officials are reportedly trying to redact portions before it’s published, which could obscure important findings.

Second, urge the State Department to implement the report’s recommendations including the call for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs to develop “specific guidance for investigating any indications that U.S.-origin defense articles have been used in Yemen by Saudi Arabia or UAE” in ways that violate international law.

Third, pass the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act, introduced in May. Among other things, the legislation would establish a hub within the Pentagon for supporting the US government on the issue of civilian harm.

The revelations in the GAO report come as President Joe Biden plans to travel to Saudi Arabia. On the campaign trail, Biden promised not to check US “values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” In office, he has lobbied Congress to approve further arms sales to the kingdom.

Without being able to effectively monitor how US-made weapons are being used by the Saudis and their allies, or if US training and support is mitigating civilian harm, the US risks more than its values. It also risks complicity in the crimes themselves.

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