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US presses Saudi Arabia on reported migrant massacres

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Picture: Faisal Al Nasser/REUTERS/Taken November 9, 2013. – Members of Saudi security forces detain Ethiopian workers during a riot in Manfouha, southern Riyadh, November 9, 2013. Thousands of mostly African workers gathered in Riyadh on Sunday seeking repatriation after two people were killed in overnight rioting that followed a visa crackdown by Saudi authorities. Ten years later, Riyadh has categorically denied allegations in last week’s explosive report from Human Rights Watch, which described widespread killing, maiming and abuse of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers by Saudi government forces positioned along the border.

By Missy Ryan, Sarah Dadouch, John Hudson and Karen DeYoung

The Biden administration is pressing Saudi Arabia to identify which elements of its security forces are alleged to have slaughtered migrants along the kingdom’s border with Yemen, a step that would mark an advance toward determining responsibility for the reported abuses and help the United States establish if it has provided weapons or training to those units.

Riyadh has categorically denied the allegations in last week’s explosive report from Human Rights Watch, which described widespread killing, maiming and abuse of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers by Saudi government forces positioned along the border.

The United States has voiced public concern about the reports of violence against civilians, which circulated among diplomats and UN officials for more than a year before being thrust into wider public view and called for a Saudi investigation.

US officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic conversations, say they are also pushing the Saudis to identify the units who, according to eyewitnesses and victims, have used mortars, small-arms fire and close-range executions to kill hundreds or possibly thousands of people, many of them women and children.

Human Rights Watch, which analysed video and satellite imagery and interviewed survivors in incidents dating back to early 2022 for its report, said the abuses could amount to crimes against humanity if they occurred as part of a government policy.

Michael Ratney, Washington’s ambassador to Riyadh, discussed the allegations with Saudi leaders this month, before the report’s publication, seeking to convey what a senior State Department official described as “the seriousness of the allegations that were going to be made public, and . . . the importance of the Saudis taking this seriously”.

The Saudi government responded to the allegations in the Human Rights Watch report by denouncing the “politicised and misleading reports . . . launched repeatedly for suspicious objectives”.

US officials declined to say what actions the Biden administration might take if the Saudi government continues to rebuff American appeals. But, the State Department official said, “we will not let up in terms of our own concern about how this has been handled and in our determination that there should be an investigation”.

The Biden administration – which counts Saudi Arabia as its largest single customer for foreign military sales – has sought to distance itself from components of the kingdom’s border guard, which is primarily responsible for securing the country’s frontier. But officials confirmed in the wake of the report’s release that the US Army conducted extensive training of the border guard over a span of eight years, beginning in 2015 and concluding only last month.

Defence and State Department officials said the eight-year programme, executed by the Army’s Security Assistance Command (USASAC), focused on the maritime division of the Saudi border guard, training troops in infrastructure protection and maritime security.

They acknowledged that they cannot rule out that American training or arms may have gone to the forces behind the alleged migrant attacks because – like researchers and UN officials – they have not been able to independently identify which units may have been involved and Saudi Arabia has not been forthcoming with details. That means they cannot be sure that other forces that have been positioned along the Yemeni border, including the Royal Saudi Land Forces, as the army is known, were not involved.

The United States has long sold heavy weaponry to the Saudi army, including Abrams tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery.

Another senior State Department official said the administration has been looking back and “scrubbing” past American security co-operation with Saudi Arabia to determine if there were any ties to the ground component of the country’s border guard. The remote location of the alleged killings, along a rugged area of the Saudi-Yemeni border deemed too dangerous for routine travel by US personnel, has also hampered further investigation.

“There are limits to our information as to what’s going on at that border, what we can see and what we know,” the official said. “[That’s] all the more reason to have additional transparency and investigation, to ensure that we can understand what’s happened there and make sure that we appropriately address any indications.”

Nadia Hardman, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who wrote the report, said that any government providing weapons or training to foreign security forces with histories of civilian harm should insist on effective means to ensure their backing doesn’t enable illicit behaviour.

“It isn’t exactly a secret that Saudi Arabia has an appalling human rights record,” she said. “This should have been a minimum requirement.”

The report adds to suspicion among some US lawmakers about the administration’s links to Saudi government forces. Representative (Rep) Gregory W Meeks, Democrat, New York (D-NY) the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “deeply concerned” about the alleged violence and said he had requested information from the administration about its response and any US ties with the forces involved.

“Saudi forces must immediately cease these brutal, unjustified actions and respect international law and basic human rights of migrants,” he said in a statement.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

The allegations come at a delicate moment in US-Saudi relations, as officials in both nations attempt to put a period of tension and mutual recrimination behind them.

That marks a shift from a year ago, when the White House publicly chastised the kingdom for cutting oil production following a controversial visit by President Biden. Saudi officials, meanwhile, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, have chafed at American complaints about the kingdom’s treatment of women and dissidents and Saudi agents’ killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

US diplomats are now scrambling to advance their goal of securing Saudi normalisation with Israel, and Riyadh hopes to secure greater US defence support and diplomatic backing as it attempts to position itself as a major broker on the global stage. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the crown prince during a trip to the kingdom in June, and Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, visited in July.

Saudi Arabia remains a key American ally in regional security and a close partner in the effort to contain Iran, despite making tentative steps toward rapprochement with Tehran and a growing relationship with Beijing. While some direct US military support to the kingdom was curtailed after the Saudi Air Force was found to have bombed civilians in Yemen, a massive programme of US arms sales, worth more than $140 billion, continues.

American officials also hope to steer Saudi Arabia’s long war with Iranian-linked Houthi forces in Yemen to a close.

Amid the carnage and deprivation, tens of thousands of desperate migrants from Ethiopia, displaced and endangered by civil conflict in their own country, have made the perilous journey to Yemen in hopes of crossing into Saudi Arabia.

Migrants affected by the attacks alleged in Human Rights Watch’s report, while unable to identify precise units, described seeing Saudi military uniforms and characterised those involved as border guards. Officials note that the Saudi army and other specialised units have been deployed to the Saudi border as part of the kingdom’s attempt to halt smuggling and Houthi attacks.

Human Rights Watch said it identified a US-designed tactical vehicle, an MRAP, at a Saudi security force post near the border.

Reports of violence were deemed credible enough to prompt the United Nations in October 2022 to send special letters of concern to Saudi and Houthi officials. The UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) cited nearly 800 deaths among migrants trying to cross from Yemen into Saudi Arabia last year.

A former United Nations official said that UN officials informed their American counterparts about the alleged incidents in the spring of 2022, and briefed the US ambassador to Yemen, Steven Fagin, in December. The briefings were first reported by the New York Times.

Senior State Department officials raised the allegations with their Saudi counterparts and called for an investigation in January, noting that initial US-Saudi discussions about the matter went back as far as summer 2022. Officials said that the alleged abuses were raised by a senior US official at the United Nations in January and referenced in the department’s annual human rights report in March.

But the administration did not reveal its conversations with the Saudi government urging a different response until after Human Rights Watch published its report and did not acknowledge the training of the national guard’s maritime division until well after its release.

‎‏In its statement last week, the Saudi government blamed violence against migrants on “armed groups that tried to force them to enter the Kingdom” and said it had provided medical care to victims.

Researchers and UN officials have cited reported exploitation and abuse of migrants by smugglers and Houthi authorities, who they say have sometimes used migrant convoys as a means to strike at Saudi Arabia. But they point to the greater loss of life from the widespread use of force by Saudi border guards. US officials are calling for greater scrutiny of abuses against migrants by the Houthis.

Because the USASAC training occurred under the United States’ Foreign Military Sales programme, meaning it was paid for by the Saudi government, officials said it does not require specialised vetting under the Leahy Law, which bars Defence or State Department funds from being used for training, equipment or other aid to foreign units if it is determined that there is credible information they have committed a “gross violation of human rights”.

Officials said that while foreign-funded training isn’t subject to Leahy vetting, such programs undergo a parallel human rights review designed to avoid involvement with problematic units.

Tim Rieser, who served as a longtime foreign policy aide to former senator Patrick J Leahy (Democrat, Vermont.), who wrote the law, said that while the Leahy restrictions might not technically apply, “an administration would be hard pressed to argue [aid] should continue in a situation where there is credible information of these types of crimes”.

Sarah Dadouch reported from Beirut.

Missy Ryan writes about diplomacy, national security and the State Department for The Washington Post. Sarah Dadouch is a Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post. Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for The Post. John Hudson is a reporter at The Washington Post covering the State Department and national security.

This article was first published in The Washington Post