U.S. Senate Foreign Relations chairman offers human rights bill on Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Jim Risch, has introduced legislation seeking to push back on Saudi Arabia over human rights and criticizing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but not by stopping weapons sales to the kingdom.

The bill, released on Wednesday, is the latest effort in the U.S. Congress to hold the kingdom accountable for rights abuses, including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

However, it does not seek to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, focusing instead on barring travel by some members of the Saudi royal family. Risch had said he wanted to introduce legislation that President Donald Trump would sign.

His measure has two Democratic co-sponsors, Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Coons.

Although Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a majority of seats in the Senate, the chamber last month defied him by voting to block billions of dollars in military sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries.

A handful of Republicans joined Democrats to pass resolutions to block the sales, rejecting Trump’s decision to sidestep Congress’ review of such deals by declaring an emergency over threats from Iran.

The Republican-majority Foreign Relations Committee also approved separate legislation, sponsored by ranking Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, that would make it more difficult for Trump to avoid congressional review of arms sales, underscoring lawmakers’ anger over his approval of $8 billion in military deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Trump has promised to veto all 22 of the resolutions of disapproval. The measures did not get enough votes in the Senate to override his veto.

Risch’s bill calls for a “comprehensive review of” and report on Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia addressing issues including the Saudi diplomatic presence in the United States.

The bill also focuses on travel by Saudi officials. It calls on Trump to deny or revoke visas of any Saudi citizens tied to rights abuses, although it allows him to issue waivers if they are in the U.S. national interest.

Risch, who voted against the resolutions of disapproval, told a committee hearing on the weapons sales on Wednesday that it was important to address what he described as “clear” threats to the United States and its allies from Iran.

“Emergency declarations are useful not just for the tangible military capabilities they transfer to allies and partners, but are equally important for the messages they convey,” he said.

Menendez scoffed at the administration’s contention that the Saudi and UAE arms deals would address an emergency. “How would sales that will not be delivered for many, many months immediately respond to an emergency?” he asked at the hearing.

The House of Representatives is due to vote on some of the resolutions of disapproval of the weapons sales next week. They are expected to pass the Democratic-controlled chamber, but would need two-thirds majorities in both chambers to overcome any Trump vetoes.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis

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source: reuters.com