Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the most powerful human rights organizations in the world, are declining to endorse a political push to end U.S. participation in the catastrophic Saudi-led war on Yemen.
The groups are taking no position on a new bill, S.J.Res.54, even as it gains political momentum and a groundswell of grassroots backing from About Face: Veterans Against the War, Just Foreign Policy, United for Peace and Justice, Oxfam America, Indivisible and other organizations.
Announced on February 28 by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the bill invokes the 1973 War Powers Resolution to force the Senate to hold a vote on withdrawing the U.S. military from the unauthorized war. While the legislation carves out an exception for forces “engaged in operations directed at al Qaeda or associated forces,” advocates say it nonetheless presents the best chance yet to withdraw U.S. support from a devastating intervention.
For almost three years, the U.S. military has provided arms, intelligence and refueling support for a Saudi-led bombing campaign that has targeted Yemen’s hospitals, weddings, schools and residential areas — killing thousands of civilians. A Saudi-led naval blockade — abetted by U.S. vessels — has cut off vital food and medical shipments, wreaking havoc on the country’s medical system and unleashing a famine and cholera outbreak.
Yet, Robyn Shepherd, media relations manager for Amnesty International USA, tells In These Times that the organization is not weighing in on whether this war should continue because, as a matter of policy, the organization does not take stances on wars. “[W]e don’t take a position on whether or not a state should go to war/take action in the first place,” she explains over email. “We just say IF that’s a thing you want to do, that you comply with international laws and take all necessary care to avoid civilian casualties.”
Andrea Prasow, Deputy Washington Director for Human Rights Watch, tells In These Times, “We don’t take a position on the legality of armed conflicts,” explaining that the group only comments on “the legality of actions conducted in an armed conflict.” However, Prasow says, “there have been extremely rare occasions where we call for humanitarian intervention.” She was unable to immediately identify any specific instances.
The groups are declining to officially support the new legislative effort, even after documenting, in harrowing detail, the U.S.-backed coalition’s brutal attacks on Yemeni civilians, including the cluster bombing of residential areas and lethal targeting of factories and farms. In light of these atrocities, the groups have called for a halt to arms shipments — with Amnesty supporting an embargo — as well as an end to human rights violations and investigations into attacks on civilians. But their demands fall short of calling for an end to the military intervention that is ultimately driving these abuses.
While the organizations’ policy not to weigh in on whether or not wars should be waged may be technically consistent, both groups have effectively thrown their weight behind the U.S. foreign policy status quo at critical junctures.
Neither organization took a formal position opposing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In December 2002, Human Rights Watch wrote a policy paper stating, “While Human Rights Watch has long advocated the prosecution of Saddam Hussein and others for crimes against the Iraqi people and others, it takes no position on the advisability or legitimacy of the use of force against Iraq or the goal of removing Saddam Hussein.”
But in March 2011, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, published a piece on the organization’s website praising NATO for “authorizing military force to protect civilians from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s wrath.” And in February 2011, as NATO was preparing to intervene in Libya, Amnesty International called on the UN Security Council to take steps toward referring al-Qaddafi to the International Criminal Court — a move that was widely understood to be a precursor to his ouster.
Both organizations would later go on to document the African slave markets that spread across Libya following the NATO intervention — without acknowledging their organizations’ roles in building political support for the bombing campaign that paved the way for this horrific development.
For several years, Roth has taken to social media and the Human Rights Watch website to strongly insinuate — but not outright say — that he supports a No Fly Zone in Syria, which is backed by a wing of the Washington establishment and would amount to an act of war escalation.
Shireen Al-Adeimi, who is organizing independently to build support for the Sanders and Lee bill, tells In These Times that it is morally unacceptable for leading human rights groups to refuse to take a position on wars, arguing that the new legislation presents the best opportunity to curb U.S. support for the intervention since the narrow failure of a June 2017 legislative effort to stop arming the Saudi-led assault.
“I’m really surprised to hear these groups declined,” says Al-Adeimi, who grew up in Yemen and now lives in Cambridge. “Since the beginning, they sent their investigators to Yemen, and we’ve seen powerful footage come out of Yemen. They’ve focused on war and intervention and the effect of bombs from the U.S. and U.K. Now that there’s a real opportunity to end intervention via this bill, it’s surprising they aren’t taking a position.”
Prasow argues, “By not taking a position on the legality of the overall conflict, we believe our work, which is neutral, will also be seen as neutral by all parties of the conflict.”
Shepherd points out that — despite not taking a position — Amnesty International is doing behind-the-scenes work related to the new bill, including participating in Senate briefings to ensure that lawmakers are aware of the human rights violations that the United States has perpetrated so far.
She says Amnesty International’s position is that the United States should not support the coalition as long as human rights violations continue, and that “Congress should investigate any U.S. role in contributing to the crisis either indirectly — through the funding of the Saudi coalition, or directly — through the use of unlawful killings through drone strikes.” However, Shepherd notes, “That’s different than saying there should or should not be no military intervention whatsoever, and we can weigh in on how military actions are conducted once they’re carried out.”
Yet, Al-Adeimi says this rhetorical positioning “misses the major point. You have a country bombing another sovereign country, and it has no right to do so. You can’t pick and choose which violations you’re going to amplify without getting at the root cause.”
“We don’t need more documentation for the sake of documentation,” Al-Adeimi continues. “What people who are starving and dying every day need is an end to the war — real action. Look, you documented. Now what?”
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.