This week, Representative Ted Lieu sent a letter to the Secretaries of State and Defense, in which he made a remarkable charge: “U.S. personnel are now at legal risk of being investigated and potentially prosecuted for committing war crimes.”
Lieu, a first-term congressman from Southern California, knows a thing or two about international law. He’s a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, and during his four years of active duty he was a military prosecutor in the JAG Corps. He taught the Law of Armed Conflict to fellow military personnel.
Now, he thinks the United States may be violating that law by assisting the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen. And he’s been fighting a lonely battle these past 18 months as one of the few members of Congress to call out the United States’ involvement in this war. “I see a lot of downside,” he told The Nation. “In addition to the moral outrage of aiding and abetting war crimes, this is hurting our national security because the people there in Yemen now understand this as a coalition being enabled by the United States. And so every bomb that drops on a civilian is a very powerful recruiting tool for terrorists.”
The Saudi coalition’s declared targets are Houthi militants who launched a government takeover and sparked a civil war, but the collateral damage has been extreme. Human-rights groups have documented at least 70 unlawful airstrikes that hit schools, hospitals, funerals, and agricultural centers. Over 10,000 civilians have been killed and famine is ravaging the populace.
The United States has been a willing partner in this coalition, supplying jets, bombs, and fuel to these missions. That makes the country complicit—morally and perhaps legally—in what appear to be deliberate war crimes.
“This coalition has struck hospitals four times, including a Doctors Without Borders hospital that caused that organization to leave the northern part of Yemen. They have struck wedding parties, civilian markets, [and] schools. According to one of these [human-rights] reports, they designated one entire city as basically a target, and you can’t do that under law of war,” Lieu said.
“I can understand if it was in the first few months of war, and you had some airstrikes that hit a bunch of civilians, that maybe they can attribute that to pilot error or the fog of war. But when you’re now in it for well over a year, and you’ve got over seventy of these strikes, then you can’t say it’s pilot error anymore,” he continued. “Especially since the Saudi-led coalition has complete air superiority. At some point it becomes either intentional targeting of civilians, or, a coalition that just doesn’t care that they’re hitting civilians.”