A bipartisan group of senators is releasing legislation imposing sanctions, prohibitions and restrictions against Saudi Arabia and other entities considered responsible for the humanitarian suffering in war-torn Yemen, the most punitive proposals to emerge from Congress since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered last month.
The group, which is led by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) and includes Trump confidant Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), is calling for a total prohibition on arms sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used for offensive purposes. The blanket embargo includes a ban on selling Riyadh munitions, bombs, missiles, aircraft, tanks or armored vehicles, according to a person familiar with the text, but does not prevent the sale of purely defensive systems, such as missile interceptors.
The measure would also codify the Trump administration’s recent decision to stop refueling Saudi planes engaged in operations in Yemen against the Houthi rebels and impose sanctions on anyone supporting the Houthi rebellion — namely, Iran — within 30 days of the bill’s passage. Those who prevent the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemeni civilians would also be subject to new proposed sanctions in the bill that would go into effect immediately.
“This bill makes clear that Congress demands an immediate cessation of hostilities, urgently calls on all parties to prioritize protection of Yemeni civilians, and makes certain that only a political settlement will end this war,” Menendez said in a statement. “We are putting teeth behind these demands with regular oversight, sanctions, and suspension of weapons sales and refueling support.”
The bill came together in response to mounting outrage among lawmakers of both parties over Saudi Arabia’s conduct, particularly in the murder of Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul. Many lawmakers believe that operation could not have taken place without the blessing of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — whom, thus far, the Trump administration has not sanctioned.
Congress’s first response to Khashoggi’s murder was invoking the Global Magnitsky Act — a law that requires Trump to decide within 120 days what individuals are responsible for human rights abuses and what sanctions should be imposed against them. On Thursday, the Trump administration announced it would sanction 17 individuals under that authority, just hours before the bipartisan group of senators released their proposal.
But for many, President Trump’s move fell short. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) ridiculed “putting sanctions on people who are in prison” as a weak choice, while drafters of the new bill suspected that Trump was trying to draw attention away from their more comprehensive proposals.
“It looks like some shameless coordination with a government that has trampled on the rule of law,” said a Senate aide familiar with the bill. “It would defy credulity that the announcement came out today when they know what we’re doing here in the Senate . . . they’re willing to designate individuals in the inner circles of Mohammed bin Salman and they won’t say a damn thing about the crown prince himself.”
Several of the provisions of the new bill are designed to force Trump to take a harder stance against the Saudi kingdom, which he all but fully embraced upon becoming president while distancing himself from Iran.
The bill would make sanctions mandatory for anyone found to have responsibility in Khashoggi’s murder under the Global Magnitsky Act. It would also require the administration to produce two reports on Saudi Arabia.
The first of those reports would address the question of where the activities of the Saudi-led coalition, Houthi rebels and others have risen to the level of war crimes, or otherwise violated international humanitarian law and the laws of war. Another would be focused on documenting Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, focusing on the government’s suppression of women, bloggers and religious freedom.
The product of those reports, the Senate aide said, could be easily compared to existing international studies to see if the Trump administration’s assessment of the situation in the Persian Gulf is notably kinder to Saudi leaders.
For Democrats, the bill’s provisions address deep skepticism that the Trump administration will hold individuals at the highest levels of the Saudi government accountable, either for the human cost of its actions in Yemen or the murder of Khashoggi.
Republican supporters are trying to strike a more coaxing tone, encouraging the Trump administration to take advantage of the tools in the bill.
“This legislation provides the Trump administration leverage it should use to push all parties in Yemen to engage in good faith and urgent negotiations to end the civil war and address the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” Young said in a statement. “Our national security interests and our humanitarian principles demand nothing less.”
“Our bill sends an important signal, and when combined with the efforts announced by the Treasury Department, goes a long way to address despicable behavior on several fronts,” Graham said.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on both the Armed Services and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, are also original co-sponsors of the legislation.