WASHINGTON — Despite mounting civilian casualties in what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the Trump administration has determined that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are doing enough to protect civilians in their military campaign in Yemen.
The move allows the administration to continue to support the Saudi-led coalition in its operations against Iranian-backed rebels that have been denounced by human rights groups and some U.S. lawmakers as possible war crimes.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday that he had certified to Congress the Saudis and Emiratis "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 administration, he said.
Congress had required the certification for the administration to maintain deliveries of weapons and other support to the coalition.
"We will continue to work closely with the Saudi-led coalition to ensure Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain support for UN-led efforts to end the civil war in Yemen, allow unimpeded access for the delivery of commercial and humanitarian support through as many avenues as possible, and undertake actions that mitigate the impact of the conflict on civilians and civilian infrastructure," he said.
The issue of what U.S. equipment is being used and when is increasingly important when it comes to the war in Yemen.
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 U.N. special envoy "to achieve a negotiated end to this fighting."
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 American influence on the Arab air campaign had made a difference in reducing instances of errant bombing and the targeting of civilians.
Human rights groups and aid organizations were quick to condemn the certification.
Oxfam said in a statement that the administration "is doubling down on its failed policy of literally fueling the world's largest humanitarian crisis."
"The Trump administration is openly defying and lying to Congress," it said. "Members of Congress must act to end the United States' complicity in this war."
Pompeo's certification came less than a month after a coalition airstrike hit a bus carrying children in a busy market in Yemen's northern Saada province, killing dozens of people in what the international rights group Human Rights Watch called an "apparent war crime." Following an international outcry, 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 U.S. had welcomed the announcement of the investigation, but rights groups were unimpressed.
Human Rights Watch has criticized the coalition's investigations into alleged violations such as the Saada strike, saying they had fallen short of "international standards regarding transparency, impartiality, and independence" and failed to identify a "clear way" to provide reparations to civilian victims of the airstrikes.
The coalition has faced severe criticism for the campaign that has killed civilians and destroyed hospitals and markets.
U.N. experts said in August that the governments of Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia may be responsible for committing war crimes, including rape, torture, arbitrary detention and use of child soldiers. They have also pointed to possible war crimes committed by the Houthi rebels fighting the coalition.
The Houthis are accused of using land mines, killing and wounding civilians. They have also targeted religious minorities and imprisoned opponents and often attempt cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia and have targeted the kingdom’s vessels in the Red Sea.