By Zenab Ahmed
This April, American President Donald Trump vetoed an effort by the United States Congress to withdraw his country’s involvement in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) war in Yemen, which involves US military support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other important Gulf monarchies, and their allies. The US Congress passed a “War Powers Resolution” in early April, thus directing President Trump to remove troops engaged in hostilities, due to there having been no formal authorisation from the body. Largely symbolic, the move challenged the Trump White House’s Yemen policy, especially as it relates to arms sales to involved actors like Saudi Arabia.
The War Powers Resolution was invoked as part of a longer history of institutional struggle within the United States, as it relates to which branch of government has control over military action, and foreign policy. This raises the question of how the United Nations should interact with such a struggle, given that its own principles and values, particularly when it comes to accountability and transparency, may be better protected by one side than another. The UN should side with Congress, in the interest of enabling an institutional framework in the US better able to meet the UN’s moral and legal standards, in this case with military involvement in Yemen, and arms sales to GCC member states at war in the country.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a GCC military intervention in Yemen, following a large scale offensive by Houthi forces to take over the country. The United States immediately supported the initiative, as part of a wider effort to placate regional unrest. For the next several years, numerous NGOs, UN agencies, world leaders, and anti-war activists, condemned Washington’s support for the conflict, in light of a mounting death toll and humanitarian crisis. This led to moves by Obama to pressure US allies to stop using US-provided weapons for war crimes and other actions that defied international standards and legal norms. In March 2017, Trump reversed a decision by Obama to suspend a $400 million sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, and has escalated US involvement, whether in supporting GCC forces (and the Saudi Arabian Air Force in particular), or launching drone strikes and special operations raids. As a result it has become increasingly likely that the White House is involved in arms sales, logistical support, and its own military activities, that also violate the laws of war. As a result, US debates about the legitimacy of the conflict have intensified, along with calls for the War Powers Resolution to be reintroduced.
The War Powers Resolution itself is a federal law, in the US, that is meant to check the president’s ability to commit to the United States to armed conflict without the consent of the U.S. Congress. It lets the president send the U.S. Armed Forces into military action only through an explicit declaration of war by Congress, or a “statutory authorisation” or “national emergency.” The law was passed at the end of the Vietnam War, and was meant to exercise greater democratic control over American warmaking, given that military buildup in Southeast Asia didn’t occur through an act of Congress. Essentially, it is a response to greater institutional tension in the United States, as it relates to who exactly gets to use military force, and how they have to justify that use before it takes place. It may also apply to more indirect involvement in military hostilities, such as through the support of third party actors, through arms sales.
Traditionally, the UN has not intervened in the internal legislative processes of its member states, out of respect for their sovereignty and autonomy. There are many reasons to support this model, particularly in light of the non-consensual decision-making that characterised imperialism and colonialism. However, it must be noted that the UN has far more to lose, in this, with formerly colonised states, than rich countries like the United States. Indeed, if the UN gets involved in the internal processes of the US, it is doing more to regulate military activity worldwide. Not all sovereignties are the same, and not all internal processes are the same. Indeed, in the case of the US, its internal mechanisms effectively involve the entire world, and the UN should seek to develop its own strategies for furthering its own values within them.
The UN already takes very firm positions on good governance, and international humanitarian standards, at the expense of local political sovereignty, in other states. These have most recently included Libya, the site of a NATO intervention that was sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Clearly, the UN doesn’t have an issue with backing institutional change, and challenging local rulers, in member states, when those objectives align with the greater political and economic ambitions of richer countries. The question is whether it should also take sides within the richer countries, themselves, which would be an ambitious change of pace, but certainly more consistent, overall. Obviously, a UN Security Council resolution isn’t necessary for the War Powers Resolution debate, as it relates to military involvement and arms sales in Yemen, but greater involvement by the United Nations is arguably appropriate. Indeed, the UN’s current neutrality on the issue is in contradiction of its own principles and objectives, which have a moralistic and humanitarian core that is at odds with US activity in, and support for, the conflict in Yemen.
As part of a wider strategy of global governance, the United Nations should seek to promote its interests in the current debate over whether the War Powers Resolution should apply to US actions in Yemen. The UN should support the US Congress as it contests the White House on this issue, in the interest of greater accountability, and promoting the UN’s core values. Indeed, the War Powers Resolution is a step towards UN ethical standards being embodied in US institutions, through action by those same institutions. Yet it will not be sustainable, in the long run, for the United Nations to simply back a local outcome, and then trust that US institutions will adhere to its wishes, on behalf of the rest of the world. The UN needs new enforcement mechanisms, if necessary, that parallel the War Powers Resolution, to restrict the potentially negative scope of US military actions, including arms sales, in the long run.