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House of Representatives vote to investigate torture in Yemen is one small step in the right direction



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Congressman Ro Khanna speaks from his office in Santa Clara, Calif., about issues facing Silicon Valley, Monday, March 12, 2018. Khanna is sponsoring an amendment to the House version of the 2019 defense authorization bill. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/TNS)  Tribune News Service Buy Photos

The U.S. House of Representatives voted last Thursday to mandate a Department of Defense investigation into whether U.S. forces have violated federal law or defense department policy in Yemen.

The provision is included as an amendment to the House version of the 2019 defense authorization bill. It’s unknown whether it will be incorporated into the Senate version.

The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna, D–California, is a reaction to an Associated Press investigation last year that uncovered the use of torture in a network of 18 secret prisons in Yemen operated by the United Arab Emirates, or in some cases by Yemeni government troops trained and backed by the U.A.E.

The U.A.E. is closely allied with the U.S., especially when it comes to the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen. It is overwhelmingly likely the U.S. has some indirect involvement in this torture, if not direct involvement.

Detainees interviewed by the AP said they knew of people being interrogated by Americans. One member of a Yemeni security force told the AP American forces were sometimes in close proximity to torture being carried out. 

Furthermore, the U.S. actually sends the Emirati and Yemeni forces the questions it wants answered, and the Emirati and Yemeni forces reply with the detainees’ answers, including videos. That means the U.S. is complicit in whatever goes on during those interrogations, whether Americans are in the room or not.

The forms of torture exposed by the AP are gruesome. One method, “the grill,” consists of tying the victim to a spit and rotating them over a fire. In addition, detainees testified they had been sexually assaulted, blindfolded for weeks at a time, kept in cramped shipping containers, smeared with feces and frequently beaten.

That’s why Khanna's amendment is valuable. Investigating these abuses is the first step to putting an end to them.

The amendment rightly demands that whatever report the defense department issues on the subject, if the amendment passes, must be unclassified. It does allow for a classified annex to the report.

It’s important not to be overly optimistic about what this amendment would achieve if passed. Internal investigations are of limited value. The Pentagon has hidden torture from the American public before, and may do so again, especially under a president who has openly embraced torture.

Also, the defense department could exploit the fact its report would be allowed to include a classified annex to conceal the most damning details.

That being said, Khanna’s amendment is a step in the right direction and should be incorporated in the bill’s final version.

Beyond that, Congress needs to deal with the issue of U.S. involvement in Yemen in a much broader way.

You wouldn’t know it from watching cable news in the U.S., but Yemen is suffering through one of the worst humanitarian crises on Earth. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in April that Yemen is the world’s single worst humanitarian crisis.

That crisis includes the worst cholera outbreak in the history of the world, according to the World Health Organization’s data.

That’s largely because of the devastating bombing campaign that has been waged since March 2015 by a U.S.-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The coalition has consistently bombed civilian targets and used indiscriminate weapons, and imposed a partial blockade on territory held by the Houthi rebel group.

The U.S., under both Obama and Trump, has been deeply involved in abetting the coalition. The U.S. is refueling Saudi planes in the air. Most significantly, the U.S. has armed Saudi Arabia throughout the conflict, selling the theocratic dictatorship $2.3 billion in weapons so far this year alone.

The U.S. itself conducts drone warfare in Yemen. The Bush administration began bombing Yemen with drones in 2002, then the Obama administration drastically escalated the pace of the drone campaign in Yemen, and the Trump administration escalated it again. Three times as many strikes occurred in 2017 as in 2016, according to the Pentagon’s data.

All of this has been done without an ounce of congressional approval or oversight. The Senate had a chance to end the carnage in March, when a resolution to extricate U.S. forces from Yemen was introduced. Fifty-four senators, including our own Joe Donnelly and nine other Democrats, voted instead to give the Trump administration free rein to continue aiding the ruthless destruction of Yemen.

The amendment introduced by Khanna, if passed into law, will be one small step of many that Congress must take to reclaim its war powers and bring the horror show in Yemen to a halt.

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