Saudi Arabia’s Misleading Email to Congress After Bombing of MSF Cholera Hospital

Just Security
2018-06-25 | Since 2 Year

by Ryan Goodman

On a recent Wednesday night in June, Saudi Arabia’s embassy emailed members of the U.S. Congress providing them something between a false and misleading account of an air strike that took place in Yemen. Two days earlier, the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and armed by the United States had reportedly blown up a cholera treatment facility belonging to the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In its email, the Kingdom could not even bring itself to acknowledge that the Coalition carried out the direct attack on the MSF facility. Instead, the Saudis used the passive voice writing that their message concerned a “Cholera Treatment Facility hit in Yemen”—without saying who hit it. The Kingdom’s email highlighted a piece of information meant to let the Coalition off the hook. The email stated, “MSF acknowledged an error they made in not officially informing the Coalition of the new treatment facility’s location,” and the embassy attached a letter that an MSF employee had sent hours after the bombing took place. But by that Wednesday evening, the Saudis knew or should have known that relying on the low-level employee’s letter would be misleading.

This was not the first time for the Saudi-led Coalition to bomb an MSF medical facility in Yemen or to paper over such a dreadful event with falsehoods. With this letter to Congress, however, Saudi public communication efforts reached a new low.

The Saudis must have been especially worried this time around. In the hours following the bombing of the MSF facility that Monday, June 11, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged that the U.S. military advises the Coalition of “no-fire areas where there are civilians, where there’s mosques, hospitals.” When asked specifically about the cholera hospital, Mattis said emphatically, “We have to find out what happened there.” Mattis told the gaggle of reporters that he “just got off the phone” with Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, and that Votel’s staff was “scrambling” to determine what the Coalition had done. It was another admission on Mattis’ part that, at least this time, the United States would independently assess the Coalition’s actions, a responsibility which the Pentagon has not always acknowledged.

But the Saudis were right about one thing. The low-level MSF employee had stated in his letter, “I would like to explain that there has been an error from our side as we failed to inform you officially of the location of the new site.” But the Saudis made a serious mistake in using the letter. The MSF employee was wrong about his facts, and the Saudi government knew or should have known that. In reality, MSF had notified the Saudi Coalition 12 times of the coordinates of the cholera treatment center. Twelve. For its part, the Coalition had acknowledged these coordinates at least nine times in writing. The Kingdom omitted that information in its email to Congress.

What the Kingdom’s email also did not say is that MSF’s senior leadership had already expressly disavowed the letter from its employee. The same day that the employee wrote his letter, MSF-Yemen issued public statements, including on social media, calling the strike a “complete disrespect for medical facilities” and saying, “whether intentional or the result of negligence, it is totally unacceptable.” The medical group, in other words, did not accept the blame. What’s more, MSF’s general counsel sent a formal communique several hours earlier on June 13 to the Coalition making plain that the initial letter from the MSF employee did not represent the position of the organization, and setting the record straight on how often the group had provided the coordinates of the cholera facility to protect itself from being bombed. On its website, MSF also explained that the Monday letter “was based on premature and incomplete information and does not represent the official position of MSF.”

Around the same time as the general counsel’s communique, on Wednesday morning (ET), MSF-Yemen tweeted photographic imagery of the rooftops of the buildings prior to the airstrike.

The before-pictures showed buildings that had been clearly marked with supersized MSF and Red Crescent emblems. Based on his own collected images, a researcher with the well-respected investigative group Bellingcat remarked, “Geolocation — and therefore satellite imagery — of the cholera treatment center shows that the red crescent logos were even visible from space.”


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