September 07, 2022

Warren, Sanders, Lee Lead Bipartisan Call for DoD and State Department to Investigate Possible U.S. Complicity in Civilian Harm In Yemen

Senators’ call follows GAO report detailing DoD and State’s failures to determine how U.S. military support to Saudi-led coalition has contributed to civilian harm in Yemen

Text of Letters (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent letters to the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of State (State), calling on the Departments to thoroughly investigate how U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen may have led to civilian harm and analyze to the effectiveness of civilian harm reduction efforts by the Saudi and Emirati governments. The senators’ letter follows a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which found that DoD and State have failed to determine how military support provided by the U.S. has contributed to civilian harm in Yemen. 

“The United States should not contribute in any way to the suffering of millions of innocent Yemenis caught in a devastating Saudi-led war,” said Senator Warren. “The U.S. government has a moral and legal obligation to ensure its actions are not exacerbating a dire humanitarian crisis, and there is strong bipartisan support for thorough investigations into possible U.S. complicity to civilian harm in Yemen.”

For more than eight years, Yemen has suffered a devastating civil war killing more than 150,000 people and with alarming numbers of civilian casualties. The Saudi-led coalition has recklessly launched strikes killing nearly 15,000 innocent civilians and U.S.-origin weapons have been reportedly used in a number of these strikes, including a 2018 strike on a school bus that killed 40 children. Between 2015 through 2020, the U.S. provided more than $54.2 billion in defense articles and defense services to the Saudi and Emirati governments, in addition to nearly $650 million in military training.

The senators note that under the Arms Export Control Act, DoD and State are required to investigate potential end-use violations of arms, including harm to civilians. However, the GAO report found that DoD has “not fully determined the extent to which U.S. military support has contributed to civilian harm in Yemen,” including DoD failing to fully measure the “extent to which its advising and training [of the Saudi and Emirati governments] have facilitated civilian harm reduction in Yemen”; and that State has “not fully determined the extent to which U.S. military support has contributed to civilian harm in Yemen,” including State not investigating whether U.S. equipment was being used for “unauthorized purposes or against anything other than legitimate military targets,” despite having indications that it was doing so.

“As the United States begins to reckon with the harm it has caused to civilians through its own military operations, it is imperative we do the same with the weapons we produce and send to countries abroad. A failure to reckon with the devastation the United States may be complicit to in Yemen would represent a failure in the Biden administration’s stated prioritization of human rights and our core democratic values,” wrote the senators. 

Senators Warren, Sanders, and Lee are calling on DoD to review if its training and advising has led to a reduction in civilian harm, and if not, to halt the provision of support until it can assess the impact of future aid. They are calling State to review whether the Saudi and Emirati governments are taking necessary precautions to prevent civilian harm in Yemen, and if not, to halt all arms sales to either country until verification that they are taking steps to protect civilians. The senators are also calling on DoD and State to answer a set of questions about shortcomings identified by the GAO’s report by October 7, 2022. 

Senator Warren has led the call for accountability for U.S. military operations that harm innocent civilians and to end any U.S. complicity in the devastating Yemeni civil war:

  • In August 2022, DoD released its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan that was responsive to Senator Warren’s numerous proposals and calls for DoD to prioritize civilian harm prevention. 
  • In July 2022, Senators Warren, Sanders, and Patrick Leahy (I-Vt.) introduced a war powers resolution to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen.
  • In March 2022, Senator Warren and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent a letter to the Pentagon calling on it to open investigations into instances of civilian harm from U.S. military operations in Yemen, after reports of dozens of deaths.
  • In April 2022, Senator Warren and Representatives Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Jason Crow (D-Colo.), Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) announced two pieces of bicameral legislation that would overhaul the prevention, mitigation, reporting, and transparency of civilian harm caused by U.S. military operations, the Department of Defense Civilian Harm Transparency Act and the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act.
    • A number of the provisions of the two pieces of legislation were adopted in the House and Senate FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.
  • In February 2022, Senator Warren secured a commitment from LTG Michael Kurilla, nominee to be General and Commander of United States Central Command, to prioritize reforms to mitigate civilian casualties.
  • In January 2022, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna led almost 50 of their colleagues in a letter calling on President Biden to overhaul U.S. counterterrorism policy after U.S. drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent civilians.
  • In January 2022, Senators Warren and Murphy and Representative Khanna released a statement in support of DoD’s directive to prevent civilian deaths
  • In December 2021, joined a bipartisan and bicameral letter calling on President Biden to exert diplomatic pressure on the coalition led by Saudi Arabia to end their blockade of Yemen’s Sana’a International Airport.
  • In November 2021, Senator Warren sent a letter to Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Chairman of SASC, requesting that the Committee launch a formal inquiry to review the findings and implications of a New York Times report detailing how the U.S. military hid an airstrike in Baghuz, Syria that killed dozens of civilians.
  • Following the August 29, 2021, unmanned airstrike that killed ten civilians in Afghanistan, Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna sent a letter to Secretary Austin to use the tragedy of civilian harm to look into the Pentagon’s history of accidentally targeting innocent civilians and significantly under-investigate and undercount civilian casualties. 
  • In July 2021, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna sent a letter urging Secretary Austin to review why significant undercounts of civilian casualties persist and why DOD made zero ex gratia payments to grieving civilians last year despite authorization and funding from Congress.
  • In May 2021, Senator Warren led 16 of her colleagues in a letter urging President Biden to take immediate and decisive action to leverage all U.S. influence and tools to pressure Saudi Arabia to unconditionally and immediately end its blockade tactics in Yemen that have prevented food, medicine, and other crucial supplies from reaching millions.
  • In June 2020, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna introduced the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act, bicameral legislation that would enhance reporting on civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations, improve investigations into civilian casualties, and strengthen resources for the Department's policies and practices relating to civilian casualty prevention and responses.