The United States Sticks Its Head in the Sand on Torture in Yemen

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In United Arab Emirates (UAE)-controlled prisons, Yemeni detainees are stripped naked, tied up, have large rocks suspended from their testicles, and raped or sodomized by wooden or steel poles. All of it is filmed by guards. These are some of the gruesome details in a new report from The Associated Press (AP)—a follow-up to its June 2017 report—documenting the horrific torture and abuse occurring in UAE-run prisons in Yemen. The United Nations and multiple human rights organizations have also provided detailed accounts of these atrocities. Yet, the United States maintains that it has seen “no substantiating information” to support these allegations. Given the consistency of the evidence that has now been public for a full year, this is a preposterous claim. The United States needs to get its head out of the sand regarding torture in Yemen.

Multiple ongoing conflicts have ravaged Yemen for years. Al-Qaida-aligned militants, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have fought an insurgent campaign against Yemeni forces since the late 2000s. In January 2015, separatist Houthi rebels toppled the Yemeni government and have since fought elements of the former government that are backed by an international Saudi Arabia- and UAE-led coalition. That conflict has exacerbated a situation the United Nations describes as the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.” The United Nations is pursuing a cease-fire among all parties involved, which, if achieved, would be a positive step toward resolution. More needs to be done, however, to bring an end to this ever-escalating conflict.

The United States’ role in Yemen

The United States has directly participated in the fight against AQAP since the Bush administration, partnering with the Yemeni government when it could as well as with regional partners such as the UAE. The United States also provides substantial military support to the Saudi and Emirati war against the Houthis—and given the contribution this war has had on the grave humanitarian crisis in Yemen, U.S. military support for the Saudi-UAE coalition has drawn considerable congressional concern.

Based on its extensive investigation in Yemen, the AP reported that the UAE has “swept up hundreds of Yemeni men into a network of at least 18 hidden prisons … on suspicion of being al-Qaida or Islamic State militants.” The tortured and abused detainees are not being held as part of the Saudi-UAE war against the Houthis but rather in connection to the counterterrorism mission in Yemen—in which the United States is a direct participant. Though there have been no accusations that U.S. personnel are directly involved in the torture and abuse of the Yemeni detainees, the United States acknowledged that “American forces receive intelligence from UAE partners and have participated in interrogations in Yemen.”

In June 2017, Human Rights Watch discovered that among “49 people, including four children, who [had] been arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared … some detainees had been abused or tortured” in Yemen. A panel of international experts on Yemen—including one American—investigating the situation pursuant to a U.N. Security Council resolution reported in January 2018 that UAE forces were responsible for torture, “including beatings, electrocution, constrained suspension and imprisonment in a metal cell (‘the cage’) in the sun.”

Following the initial revelations in June 2017, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jack Reed (D-RI)—the chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, respectively—sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis requesting an investigation into the abuses, “including U.S. support to the Emirati and Yemeni partner forces that were purportedly involved.” Two months later, numerous human rights organizations sent a joint letter to Secretary Mattis and then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo calling for a broad investigation of these incidents and requesting that any information transmitted to Congress on this issue also be made public.

Despite these requests, the only public statements or information from the U.S. government concerning these allegations have been denials. That is simply unacceptable.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly and explicitly called for the United States to return to torturing detainees in the fight against terrorist groups, even proposing to use torture techniques more severe than those the United States employed during the Bush administration. This past May, the U.S. Senate narrowly confirmed Gina Haspel to head the CIA—despite evidence that she was directly involved in the Bush administration’s torture policies and the efforts to cover it up. Although Haspel pledged in her confirmation hearing to refuse any orders to resume torture, her promise would mean little if the United States then overlooked credible allegations of torture occurring under its partner nations’ watch.

The Bush administration’s horrific torture tactics severely damaged the security of the United States. As a former U.S. military interrogator wrote, “the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked [to Iraq] to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” He also noted 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.” The United States should learn from—not aggressively reinstate—failed tactics of the past.

If the AP, U.N. experts, and human rights groups can uncover this scale of UAE-led torture and abuse of Yemenis, the only way the Defense Department could not have found any supporting evidence is if it didn’t even try. The department must be forced to do so—now. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes a provision requiring the Defense Department to conduct a thorough review of these allegations and to report the results to Congress and the American people. That or a similar provision must be included in the final version of the NDAA.

Torture is immoral, illegal, and counterproductive. It’s time for the United States to stop the UAE from torturing Yemeni detainees—or risk repeating the catastrophe of Abu Ghraib that only emboldened our enemies and cost American lives. 

Ken Gude is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.