Congress Highlights Human Rights Abuses and Humanitarian Crises

While Congress is working to fund the federal government and House committees are undertaking a new round of oversight of the Trump Administration, many Congresspeople spent the last week elevating two problems: human rights abuses and humanitarian crises.

President Donald Trump is a notoriously transactional individual and his administration has approached foreign relations in that same manner. Instead of encouraging respect for basic political and human rights, the president is ignoring the shortcomings of regimes in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in exchange for good deals on other matters.

Congress, however, is not as willing to overlook the pervasive human rights abuses and prolonged humanitarian crises in many parts of the region. Of course, Congress has almost turned a blind eye to Israeli abuses of human rights under its military rule of the occupied Palestinian territories. However, many members of Congress have remained committed to exposing US partners’ complicity in abuses and crimes.

Syria and Yemen

The conflicts in Syria and Yemen have arguably produced two of the worst crises in the world. Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) held a hearing last week to highlight the ongoing nature of the crisis in Syria, while Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) appeared at a separate briefing on the crisis in Yemen and what the United States should be doing to end the suffering there.

During the TLHRC hearing, members of Congress heard unsettling facts and statistics about the ongoing disaster in Syria. The Bashar al-Assad regime and his foreign patrons have continued to wage war on the residents of Idlib, one witness said, and the world could soon observe a wave of refugee migration not seen since 2016. After recounting lists of human rights abuses and probable war crimes and crimes against humanity, the witnesses at this hearing gave lawmakers a lengthy list of recommendations that they hoped could help alleviate suffering in the short term and eventually end the war altogether.

The witnesses agreed that Congress should provide budgetary resources to ensure that nongovernmental organizations and humanitarian partners on the ground in Syria can provide targeted and flexible support to those affected by the conflict. Beyond providing assistance, the witnesses urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would hold Assad accountable for his regime’s crimes (Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act) and prevent Assad-held areas from receiving critical funds for reconstruction (No Assistance for Assad Act). They also asserted that the United States should be pushing for peace negotiations under the UN-led Geneva process that would ensure the human rights and the safe and informed return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons in any negotiated settlement, which is not currently the case under the rival Astana process.

As for Yemen, Senator Murphy spoke of his frustration with the “moral abomination” of Yemen’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, especially after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reneged on their previous pledges to provide $750 million each to support UN efforts to provide lifesaving food and medication to needy Yemenis. Murphy cited well publicized statistics about the effects of the famine in Yemen, the numbers of the starving or food insecure, and the number of cases of preventable diseases like cholera. He also was unrelenting in his insistence that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are, to varying degrees, responsible for the suffering that has stricken Yemen.

Murphy and some of his Senate colleagues went further this week, however, and appealed directly to the de facto rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Crown Princes Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, respectively. Murphy said during his briefing that the Trump Administration should be bringing up the Yemen crisis repeatedly; but, since it does not appear to be doing that, he and his colleagues raised the issue with the two leaders directly.

Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain

Although not as consistently visible as the devastating humanitarian crises discussed above, lawmakers are intent on raising the issue of human rights abuses in other parts of the region, particularly in two of the United States’ Gulf partners. In the aforementioned briefing, Senator Murphy also raised an all too familiar issue with Riyadh, that of the extrajudicial murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. He said that the Senate must remain committed, in a bipartisan fashion, to sending a punishing message to the Saudis over this heinous act. Furthermore, the Saudis are a case study, the senator said, of a partner to which the United States must send a message by punishing those who “have just gone too far in attacking freedom of speech.” For this reason, the senator said he and a colleague will continue to push legislation in the Senate that will force a debate on US-Saudi relations.

Bahrain also was a subject of discussion in the Senate this week. Murphy, alongside Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), sent a letter to President Trump asking him to broach the sensitive topic of human rights abuses with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa during the latter’s visit to Washington. The trio also asked the president to urge the Bahraini government to release prisoners of conscience and resume a national dialogue with members of the country’s opposition.

Though there are several security concerns facing the Middle East, the Trump Administration is too myopic in its priorities toward the region. Members of Congress understand that the president is absent from speaking out for human rights and ending the humanitarian crises, so they took it upon themselves to advocate for solutions to these problems.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats No Longer Eyeing Action Against Israel for Omar-Tlaib Denial. Despite previously considering taking action against Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman for refusing entry to members of Congress, House Democrats appear to be reversing course, saying that any formal action is “not happening.” Some House Democrats told The Algemeiner that they are no longer considering taking any action against the Israeli government for its decision to bar Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) from entering Israel or the occupied West Bank.

2) Nominations

John Rakolta, Jr. Confirmed as US Ambassador to the UAE. On September 17, the Senate voted 63-30 to confirm John Rakolta, Jr. as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Rakolta is a former business executive and, during his confirmation hearing, he touted his business credentials as one of his strengths to better understand the UAE, which is the largest market for US goods and services in the Middle East.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Tunisia at a Crossroads: Balancing Political Stability and Economic Prosperity. On September 13, the Arab American Institute held a congressional briefing to share with congressional staffers and the general public recent developments in Tunisia, as well as “the current bilateral strategic investment framework dialogue between Tunisia and the United States.” Two Tunisian municipal officials spoke alongside Arab Center Washington DC nonresident fellow Dan Brumberg and Rita Stephan, who is the director of the State Department’s US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). As the event preceded Tunisia’s September 15 presidential elections, Stephan reminded the audience of MEPI’s past work in Tunisia, particularly in helping to strengthen democratic institutions, increase voter turnout, and enfranchise all segments of Tunisian society.

Enemy at the Gate: Israel’s Iran Problem. Also on September 13, the Hudson Institute held a briefing to discuss Iran’s regional ambitions and the threat posed to Israel by Tehran on its borders. The expert panel included Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, who is the president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, a US government-funded Arabic-language news organization. In addition, Derek Harvey, a former member of President Trump’s National Security Council, and the current adviser to the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California), participated in the discussion. Their conversation surprisingly revolved around reported Israeli strikes in Iraq and how those strikes are problematic for the United States’ presence there as they frustrate Iraqis and provide fodder for Iranian propaganda.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Meets with the Bahraini Crown Prince, Talks Gulf Security. President Donald Trump welcomed Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad to the White House this week. They discussed bilateral security and trade, but the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure—and Iran’s potential role in them—were likely a major topic of conversation. The crown prince also noted that Bahrain moved to purchase its first Patriot missile defense battery. During his visit to Washington, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad also met with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In addition to meeting with Bahraini officials, Secretary Pompeo left to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the recent attacks.

Trump Supports Israel Defense Pact. Ahead of Israel’s elections, President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touted their discussions about a possible US-Israel mutual defense pact that would see each country come to the other’s aid in the event of military confrontation. Many in Israel and the United States have advocated for this, but others in both countries are skeptical of such a proposal, warning of the potential negative consequences of such agreement. More revealing, both leaders raised this issue ahead of the Israeli legislative elections, likely in order to benefit Netanyahu’s electoral odds.

Robert O’Brien to Serve as Next National Security Adviser. On September 18, President Trump tweeted that he would be promoting Robert O’Brien from Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to National Security Adviser. O’Brien is a lawyer who has served in miscellaneous positions in the State Department. During the George W. Bush Administration, he worked with none other than John Bolton when he was temporarily the US Ambassador to the United Nations. O’Brien is generally believed to be more patient and less bombastic than Bolton.

2) Department of the Treasury

Sigal Mandelker Addresses Annual International Conference on Counterterrorism. On September 11, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker addressed the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s annual conference in Israel. Mandelker recounted the Treasury Department’s history in the fight against terrorism and highlighted the actions the Trump Administration has taken to cut off terrorist organizations’ access to the financial sector. She emphasized actions against a number of regional actors, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State, and Iranian entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, its Quds Force, and the domestic group known as the Basij.

Mandelker was joined in Israel by Ambassador Nathan Sales, who serves as the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department. Sales, though, focused solely on the threats posed by al-Qaeda and outlined the steps the current administration has taken to protect the country and its partners from those threats.

Hezbollah and Iran’s Illicit Financial Networks. On September 13, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea appeared at a briefing at the Atlantic Council to discuss Iranian illicit financing, particularly as it applies to Hezbollah. Billingslea reiterated the administration’s actions to cripple Iran financially and listed those taken by the Treasury to limit Hezbollah’s access to capital. He then explained how the administration has mobilized international actors to put even more pressure on these illicit financial networks. To do this, he emphasized, the international community must mobilize to enforce sanctions, end purchases of Iranian oil, and be vigilant and increase its capacity to shut down new networks as they form.

3) Department of Energy

Energy Eyes Dialogue with Egypt, Will Attend IAEA General Conference. On September 12, the Department of Energy announced that it would be undertaking a “strategic dialogue” with its counterparts in Egypt. The effort will partly aim to enhance Egypt’s energy security and ensure benefits for the entire eastern Mediterranean region.

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry represented the United States at the general conference for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which, among other things, is responsible for overseeing Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Perry criticized Iran’s decision to deviate from the nuclear deal’s parameters before the IAEA conference—although the Trump Administration abrogated the deal. Interestingly, he also told reporters that he sent a letter to the Saudis urging them to allow the IAEA more access to conduct inspections of their nuclear program. This is surprising because, thus far, the administration has been ambivalent about pushing Riyadh to adopt the most stringent conditions for its nuclear program.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here