Saudi coalition doing enough to reduce civilian harm in Yemen, U.S. says

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday he has told Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are doing enough to protect civilians in Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Iran-aligned rebels in a civil war. Thousands of have died in the fighting and millions are in dire need of aid.

Pompeo said in a statement that he had certified that the Saudi and Emirati governments "are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure." Ending the war is "a national security priority" for the Trump administration, he said.

The United States will work to ensure the coalition's support for UN-led efforts to end the war, allow the delivery of humanitarian support and lessen the war's impact on civilians and infrastructure, Pompeo said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he endorsed and "fully" backed Pompeo's certification, adding that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were "making every effort" to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage. Mattis said the U.S. was working with a UN special envoy "to achieve a negotiated end to this fighting."

U.S. lawmakers, concerned about a growing humanitarian crisis, included a measure in this year's defence spending bill that required Pompeo to certify by Wednesday whether Saudis and the United Arab Emirates were taking meaningful measures to reduce civilian casualties and allow humanitarian aid.

Without the certification, the law would prohibit the United States from refueling ally Saudi Arabia's planes.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Mattis said last month that the U.S. intended to keep backing the coalition, despite civilian casualties and questions about the Saudis' commitment to avoiding killing innocent people. He said U.S. influence on the Arab air campaign had made a difference in reducing instances of errant bombing and the targeting of civilians.

Yemen's civil war, pitting the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels who ousted Yemen's internationally recognized government, has raged since March 2015. The coalition backs the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and aims to restore it to power.

Saudi Arabia announced in 2015 that it would lead a coalition of countries against the Houthis.

In the years since then, the United Nations says, the conflict has become the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people in desperate need in what is already the Arab world's poorest country. Human rights experts documented 6,475 deaths from March 2015 until last June but said the real figure is likely to be significantly higher.

Other groups have estimated that more than 10,000 people have been killed, excluding 2,300 cholera deaths since April 2017 amid pitiful water supplies.

'There is only 1 moral answer'

Just last month, an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition hit a bus carrying children in a busy market, killing dozens of people in what the international rights group Human Rights Watch called an "apparent war crime." The coalition expressed regret and pledged to hold accountable those found to be responsible for the airstrike, which killed at least 51 people, including 40 children.

The non-governmental organization Oxfam America said in a statement after Pompeo's notice on Wednesday that "the Trump administration once [again] put its Gulf allies ahead of Yemeni families who are struggling to survive."

"With Secretary Pompeo's certification, the State Department demonstrated that it is blindly supporting military operations in Yemen without any allegiance to facts, moral code or humanitarian law," the statement read.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic representative Ro Khanna of California reacted quickly to the certification, blasting it on social media as a "farce."

"The Saudis deliberately bombed a bus full of children," said Khanna. "There is only one moral answer, and that is to end our support for their intervention in Yemen."

With files from CBC News and Reuters