By Rachel Stohl
On June 13, U.S. lawmakers voted on a joint resolution to block a proposed U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia amid concerns about the mounting humanitarian crisis resulting from the war in Yemen. The Senate voted 53-47 against the bipartisan resolution, led by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Al Franken (D-MN).
Senate Joint Resolution 42 aimed to block part of the Trump administration’s $110 billion broader arms agreement with Saudi Arabia, specifically $510 million in precision-guided munitions intended for use in Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen.
The United States has come under growing pressure for its support of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, which has resulted in more than 13,000 civilian casualties over two years, according to U.N. estimates. The true death toll is believed to be considerably higher. The war in Yemen has also resulted in and indeed exacerbated a devastating humanitarian crisis in the country, where more than 18 million people — or over sixty percent of the population — are in need of assistance. An estimated seven million are at risk of starvation and many are affected by a rapidly spreading cholera outbreak, according to the U.N. Armed conflict in Yemen has worsened these conditions, as aid groups lack adequate access to supplies and air strikes continue to hit civilian targets, including hospitals, schools, markets, and factories.
Though the resolution failed, the vote was a remarkable achievement. It was a rare and nearly unprecedented display of disapproval from Congress in response to a proposed arms sale, particularly to a close ally. Congress seldom critiques proposed arms sales so publicly. Saudi Arabia, which has been a close U.S. partner in the Middle East and for more than a decade of counter-terrorism operations, has benefited from a close relationship with the United States, buying hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons in the last 20 years. Indeed, the last time Congress successfully stopped an arms sale to Saudi Arabia was in the early 1990s, when, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, lawmakers opposed a $20 billion arms package to Saudi Arabia (although the sale was eventually broken into smaller pieces, though some systems were postponed indefinitely).
The Senate’s vote demonstrates that Congress will no longer accept “business-as-usual” in providing U.S. weapons to close allies. This particular sale was truly “morally indefensible and strategically shortsighted,” as Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) remarked during the floor debate, and perhaps marks a new era in Congress exerting its oversight role in ensuring that U.S. arms are not used to target innocent civilians and facilitate human rights abuses and humanitarian catastrophes.
Rachel Stohl is the Director of the Conventional Defense program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center.