In a report released by the Human Rights Watch, allegations have been made that the Saudi Arabian-led coalition sent to stabilize the country of Yemen has taken measures that involve using American cluster bombs on civilians. Yemen currently stands as a nation divided; separate areas of the country are occupied by loyalists to Yemen’s former president, loyalists to Yemen’s current president, foreign armies, jihadists from both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and a group of rebels known as Houthi. The country’s political disintegration began during the Arab Spring, where large groups of Yemenis protested in the streets in response to perceptions of governmental corruption, economic conditions, and concurrent regional uprisings.
In a November 11, 2015 attempt to calm the protests, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf brokered a deal between political factions within the Yemeni government that forced Yemen’s then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office and replaced him with current president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Despite agreeing to the deal, Saleh opted to remain within the country’s borders and began to support the Houthi-led rebellion. When the current civil war erupted in early 2015, the United Nations-recognized leader, Hadi, lost control of Yemen and was ultimately forced to leave the country; after the Houthi capture of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, Houthi rebels consequently took advantage of the power vacuum and managed to gain occupation of the whole of Western Yemen.
From the Saudi Arabian perspective, the occupation of Western Yemen posed the potential for the protests to cross into their territory. Saudi Arabia had previously militarily supported the now Hadi-led faction in the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, feeling threatened by a united Yemen. Accompanied by nine other countries, Saudi Arabia led an airstrike initiative in an effort to regain control of the area. Saudi Arabian officials had initially expected that the airstrikes would have the power to force Houthi rebels into negotiations, but nearly nine months after the beginning of the strikes, Houthi rebels have managed to keep their footing on the Yemeni capital. Saudi Arabia has maintained that they have only struck strategic locations in Yemen; however, the Human Rights Watch report suggests that the Saudi Arabian forces have managed to take civilian lives in the process.
Cluster bombs are a form of air-dropped artillery in which the bomb explodes over the target, releasing smaller bomblets to cover a large area. While the allegations surrounding their use in Yemen have not been confirmed, this type of weapon remains controversial amongst the international community—the use of American-made cluster munitions in Yemen would prove to be a violation of US export laws, and could have political repercussions for lawmakers who rejected a ban on the type of weapon. Legally, cluster bombs can be exported from the U.S., and they certainly have been sold to Saudi Arabia in recent years, but receiving countries must agree not to use the bombs in civilian areas.
Department of Defense Spokesman Christopher Sherwood has stated that the government has acknowledged the report, and it is currently under review. The report includes photographs and video evidence of the allegations, in addition to interviews with witnesses and victims. The Human Rights Watch document contains claims from nearly a dozen other witnesses who state they have encountered cluster munitions during airstrikes.
This recent development is a pressing issue for the U.S.; while the bombs run the potential of stabilizing areas occupied by rebels, the potential for civilian death is also incredibly high in the use of cluster bombs.