Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Human Rights Groups Criticize Use Of Cluster Bombs In Yemen Conflict


In Yemen, there has been a sharp increase lately in airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition. That coalition has received controversial support from the United States. The airstrikes are aimed at rebels called Houthis who have backing from Iran. The number of civilian casualties is soaring, and there is also concern about the use of cluster bombs which are banned by many countries. NPR's Jackie Northam has the latest.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen was launched last March. Since then, thousands of civilians have been killed. The strikes slowed for a while late last year as peace talks got underway but returned with a ferociousness in the new year.

BELKIS WILLE: We've seen a real scale-up of airstrikes, particularly on the capital, on Sanaa.

NORTHAM: Belkis Wille is a Yemen specialist with Human Rights Watch and travels there regularly. She says there's an increase in airstrikes in part because the peace negotiations failed, which led to the collapse of a fragile ceasefire and because of increased tensions recently between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival, Iran, which provides some support to the rebels in Yemen. That ratcheted up after Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric this month.

WILLE: Because of the tensions right now between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi is lashing out. In Yemen, there's more pressure at home in Saudi Arabia to come home with an absolute victory in a war that has gone on far too long.

NORTHAM: Human Rights Watch also blames the Houthi rebels for civilian casualties, saying it deploys fighters in densely populated areas. But blame from the international community is more often pointed towards the Saudi coalition because the airstrikes do so much more damage. Wille says there is a new concern with the airstrikes, and that's the introduction of cluster bombs in civilian areas. They release and scatter hundreds of smaller bombs which often do not explode until civilians come across them, sometimes years later.

WILLE: A few days ago, we shockingly saw an attack where Saudi Arabia launched cluster munitions in an airstrike on the capital. This was really one of the most flagrant attacks that we've seen since the beginning of the war.

NORTHAM: Wille says those cluster bombs were made in the U.S. and sold to Saudi Arabia in the late-1970s. Nail al-Jubeir, a spokesman at the Saudi embassy in Washington, says Saudi Arabia denies they have used cluster bombs in civilian areas and says it doesn't even possess the kind of bombs Human Rights Watch cited, nor does it need to use 40-year-old weapons.

The U.S. role is also under scrutiny. It's been a major arms supplier to the kingdom for decades and provides the Saudis with intelligence and targeting information. Adam Baron is a Yemen analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

ADAM BARON: The United States is intimately involved in this, whether we're talking about logistical support the United States government is providing or whether we're talking about the fact that the Saudis, by and large, are dropping a number of American weapons on the ground in Yemen.

NORTHAM: Stephen Seche, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and now with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says the White House is trying to push for a negotiated peace settlement, but it may not have much leverage.

STEPHEN SECHE: It's difficult for us to step back from this and say we're trying to sort this out when, in fact, we're supporting very heavily one side in the conflict.

NORTHAM: And, Seche says, the Saudis haven't demonstrated a lot of interest in listening to what the U.S. is saying. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.