House and Senate Leadership Agree to Investigate US Involvement in UAE Torture, Condition Assistance to Coalition

Washington, DC -- Last night, congressional leadership released the conference report of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019, which includes two amendments that will bring greater oversight and accountability to the activities of the United States and Saudi-led coalition allies intervening in Yemen’s civil war. As a pacifist organization, the Yemen Peace Project does not endorse the NDAA; however, we welcome the inclusion of Section 1274 and Section 1290 in the final legislation and, once signed into law, we strongly encourage members of Congress to take advantage of their provisions in order to increase transparency concerning US engagement in the conflict and pressure coalition allies to adhere to international law and the United Nations-led peace process.

Initially advanced by Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), Section 1274 directs the Secretary of Defense to investigate whether “Armed Forces or coalition partners of the United States violated Federal law, the laws of armed conflict, or Department of Defense policy while conducting operations in Yemen,” and submit his findings to Congress in an unclassified report. The amendment seeks to determine potential US complicity in the enforced disappearances and torture committed by the United Arab Emirates and UAE-backed forces in Yemen’s south and east. Reports of widespread UAE torture of detainees in Yemen first surfaced in June 2017 and were recently elaborated upon in a disturbing Amnesty International report.  Anonymous US officials informed the Associated Press that US personnel “do participate in interrogations of detainees in locations in Yemen, provide questions for others to ask, and receive transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies.” By requiring the DoD to submit an unclassified report to Congress, and by forcing them to investigate whether US support for relevant UAE units runs afoul of 10 USC 362 concerning the prohibition on assistance to human rights-violating foreign forces, Section 1274 will further spotlight the unconditional support the United States provides to its regional allies intervening in Yemen while strongly reasserting US adherence to international human rights laws prohibiting torture and other forms of cruel and unusual punishment.

Section 1290 is a modified version of Senate Joint Resolution 58, introduced by Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) last spring. Per the provisions of 1290, Congress will withhold federal funds for refueling assistance to Saudi and UAE aircraft operating in Yemen if the Secretary of State cannot periodically certify that Saudi Arabia or the UAE are making an “urgent and good faith effort to support diplomatic efforts to end the civil war in Yemen”; taking “appropriate measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen”; taking “demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians”; and, with regard to Saudi Arabia, “undertaking appropriate actions to reduce any unnecessary delays to shipments” from vessel inspections additional to the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism. The section also requests a lengthy report from the Department of State concerning US and coalition allies’ activities in Yemen. While Section 1290 has a number of workarounds for the administration--including a process by which the administration can waive any restrictions to refueling assistance on national security grounds--it is the first law that provides for the conditioning of logistical support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Overall, Sections 1274 and 1290 mark yet another increase in congressional pressure on the US government and coalition allies to end gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law and fully commit to the conflict’s political settlement. As with provisions in last year’s NDAA, not to mention multiple efforts in the Senate and House to block arms sales and challenge the constitutionality of US support to the coalition, committed members of Congress are again demonstrating that they are serious about applying what leverage the US has to bring a dangerous and destabilizing conflict to a close, and disciplining an administration that enables its allies to perpetuate this war  regardless of the humanitarian and political consequences.