Yemenis are terrorized by a weapon made in America, sold to the Saudis

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Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter and it's The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. We're going to come back to a story that's been under the radar a bit lately: Yemen's complicated civil war. Saudi Arabia has an interest in it, and it's been conducting a bombing campaign there. There are reports today that Saudi-backed forces have retaken the port city of Aden from Houthi rebels. That's the news, but for the next few minutes we're going to talk about another part of the story, Saudi Arabia's use of cluster bombs in Yemen. The group Human Rights Watch has documented this. Here is what investigator Belkis Villa told us in a recent interview.


Belkis Villa: We've documented the use in five incidents of cluster munitions. Three different types of cluster munitions, two of which are US-made, US sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Interestingly, all five incidents have been Saada.


Schachter: That's Saada in Yemen. The world's Stephen Snyder produced that interview and decided to dig in further. So Steven, let me start with one big question I have. I thought cluster bombs were banned. How is it that US-made cluster bombs are being used in Yemen?


Stephen Snyder: You have to back up a little bit there, there is a ban. In 2010, an international ban was signed. The United States didn't sign onto that ban, and so that's why the United States is able to make a cluster bomb.


Schachter: What are they doing in Yemen, then?


Snyder: They sold them to the Saudis. There are customers that the United States has brokered deals with, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of whom are part of the Saudi campaign in Yemen.


Schachter: So Steven, are these the same sorts of cluster bombs that have been around for decades, little balls that we see littering fields in the Middle East?


Snyder: These are not the same thing. These are not things that civilians would go and pick up afterwards. Kids aren't going to think they're toys. If the weapon deploys right, they’re not going to pick up anything. This is a smart weapon, and it has heat-seeking, laser-guided bomblets that seek out targets like tanks and trucks and armored personnel carriers. They’re designed with a lot of safety built in. In fact, Jeremy Binnie of IHS Jane's Defense Weekly knows the weapon really well, and he explains it like this.


Jeremy Binnie: One of the first safety measures is that if they don't see a target, they will explode at a safe height, or self-destruct in the air in a way that is not a threat to people on the ground. Then there's a time out device, where the triggering mechanism will no longer work after a certain amount of time, so in theory, the explosive charge is no longer effective.


Schachter: Considering what Jeremy just said, what is wrong with these weapons? It seems like they are not the cluster bombs of old.


Snyder: Their use in Yemen by Saudi Arabia is breaking some rules that were set down in the purchase from the United States. The first one is that no explosive munitions would end up on the ground. They found some. The second one is that they wouldn't be used near civilians, and they were. Even though the Saudis bought these weapons legally, they're not using them legally.


Schachter: Okay, so, these weapons were made, you said, by a US manufacturer. Who are they, where are they?


Snyder: The manufacturer is Textron. They're a defense manufacturer. This is actually how I got into the story, they're located sixteen miles from this studio.


Schachter: Wow.


Snyder: Yeah.


Schachter: So these things are being made sixteen miles away from us?


Snyder: They're being made here in Massachusetts. There's also a production line in Oklahoma.


Schachter: When you put the Human Rights Watch findings to this company, Textron, what do they tell you?


Snyder: They said that they do not make comments on how their weapons are used by their purchasers.


Schachter: So that's what they say, there are some Congressmen, including some from here in Massachusetts who are pretty ticked off by what's going on now in Yemen, right? What are they so angry out?


Jim McGovern, who's the congressmen from Massachusetts, actually wrote the language that spelled out the conditions for the sale. He is aware, from looking at the Human Rights Watch report, that those conditions aren't being met.


Jim McGovern: What do we do? We just throw up our hands and say it's too bad they didn't comply with US law, and oh boy, that's just tough? Why don't we actually make sure our laws mean something? I think if a country violates the law and uses these weapons in the way that the Saudis did, they ought not to get any more.


Schachter: Any word from the federal government about this? What do they say?


Snyder: Federal government says that they take these things very seriously, but that's where it ends.


Schachter: Okay. Stephen Snyder, we'll leave it there. Thank you so much.


Snyder: Thank you.


Schachter: You can read Steven's entire report and see a sales video of the weapon that shows how it parachutes onto a battlefield, targets armored vehicles and then destroys them. That's at