The Trump administration is facing many crises that require urgent attention. But recently reported allegations that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is torturing and abusing prisoners at numerous secret detention centers in Yemen—and that the United States is complicit in these actions—should move this one to the top of the list. Even before this alleged torture came to light, the United States had a lot of questions to answer for its role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. But turning a blind eye, or worse, to another torture scandal in the Middle East would undermine American national security and potentially expose U.S. officials to legal jeopardy.
An extensive Associated Press (AP) investigation published last week identified 18 secret prisons across southern Yemen operated by the UAE or UAE-trained Yemeni forces. The AP reported that nearly 2,000 Yemenis have been sent to these secret prisons “where abuse is routine and torture extreme—including the ‘grill,’ in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire.” Former inmates at one of the facilities interviewed by the AP described “being crammed into shipping containers smeared with feces and blindfolded for weeks on end … beaten, trussed up on the ‘grill,’ and sexually assaulted.”
Human Rights Watch issued its own report last week on widespread detainee abuse in Yemen that was consistent with the AP’s findings. The UAE categorically denied all the allegations, saying, “There are no secret detention centers and no torture of prisoners is done during interrogations.”
The Emirates should back up this claim by declaring all detention facilities and ensuring access to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in accordance with the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions. The United States and other UAE partners should demand this to protect fundamental human rights and to comply with international law. In May, ICRC leaders called for access to all detainees in Yemen saying, “[M]any conflict-related detainees remain off-limits in many locations.”
Neither the AP’s nor Human Rights Watch’s investigations allege direct involvement by any U.S. personnel in the abuses. The AP reports, however, that detainees say U.S. personnel are present at the interrogation centers where abuse occurs “at times only yards away.”
U.S. Defense officials told AP that “American forces do participate in interrogations of detainees at locations in Yemen, provide questions for others to ask, and receive transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies.” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White denied American participation in or knowledge of abuses, saying, “[W]e would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights.”
Unfortunately, the United States does not have a deep well of credibility to draw upon in this episode. The tragedy of horrific torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq War has left an indelible mark on the United States’ human rights record. The findings of a Senate Select Intelligence Committee report issued in 2014 included widespread instances of torture and abuse in the Bush administration’s interrogation and rendition program. In fact, as noted in the AP story, the UAE was one of the countries that participated in that program.
Following this catastrophic policy, Congress and the Obama administration took corrective measures to ensure that the United States did not return to torture. President Donald Trump, however, campaigned on bringing back waterboarding—or worse—and has said since assuming office that he believes “torture works.” Trump only refrained from reinstituting torture because of the objections of Defense Secretary James Mattis. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, sees U.S. support for human rights as an “obstacle to our ability to advance our national security interests.” Given those views, it is not surprising the United States finds itself in this position and that Pentagon denials may lack some credibility.
The United States learned an extremely costly and painful lesson during the Bush administration: Torture and abuse is counterproductive, providing only fuel for our enemies and bad information. Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym used by a former U.S. military interrogator during the Iraq War, wrote:
I learned the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked [to Iraq] to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. … It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse.
We cannot make that same mistake again.
Congress has recently taken a more assertive role in overseeing U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, with the Senate narrowly failing to block a massive sale of precision guided weapons to Saudi Arabia earlier this month. The bipartisan leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jack Reed (D-RI), wrote Secretary Mattis, demanding an investigation into the abuses and any U.S. complicity.
An investigation is certainly warranted, but that is not all Congress can do. The United States currently provides much of the weaponry and the airborne refueling support for Saudi and Emirati aircraft flying missions in the Yemen war. That provides the United States with substantial leverage over the actions of the UAE. The chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), recently announced he would reject any new arms sales to the Gulf states until the crisis with Qatar is resolved. At a minimum, that ban on new sales should be extended until the UAE declares all of its detention centers and grants the ICRC full access to the detainees held there.
Torture is a moral abomination and creates needless human suffering. It also costs American lives. It matters little if Americans are doing the torturing or are complicit with our allies. Either way, it provides fuel for the propaganda, radicalization, and recruitment campaigns of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda. If these allegations are true, and the UAE does not address them quickly and in a transparent manner, the United States has the power to stop it. Doing so should become an urgent priority.
Ken Gude is a senior fellow on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.