The War Within Wars: The Humanitarian Situation in Yemen

Yashi Bajpai, RGNUL

History of the Conflict – the Civil War

The civil war in Yemen traces back to 2014 when the Houthi movement, which champions Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, captured Sanaa, with demands of lower fuel prices and a change of government. Eventually, after failed peace talks, the Houthi insurgents took possession of the Presidential palace in January 2015, ousting Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was later forced to flee the country. Subsequently, in March 2015, a coalition of Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes targeting Houthis with the aim of restoring legitimate government headed by Mr. Hadi, who also had the support of the UN, evident by the UNSC Resolution 2216

Saleh was forced to abdicate his President seat to his deputy Mansour Hadi in 2011. In 2016, his forces, along with the Houthis, announced the formation of the “Political Council”. However, in December 2017, Saleh split up from the Houthis, and he was soon killed in an operation by them.

In July 2019, the UAE declared that it would be withdrawing its forces from Yemen after facing backlash from the international community, which led to clashes between the Saudi backed forces and a southern separatist movement, called the Southern Transitional Council (STC), backed by the UAE.

While the UN was optimistic that a conciliatory agreement was a positive indication towards the end of the civil war, in January 2020, to its absolute dismay, the hostilities escalated between the Houthis and the Saudi-Emirati coalition forces culminating into fights, missile launches and airstrikes.

The STC in April 2020, flouted the peace accord called the “Riyadh Agreement”, entered into with the internationally recognised government, by declaring self-rule over Aden, the interim seat of the Yemeni government. Later in April, when Saudi Arabia initiated a unilateral ceasefire due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Houthis disregarded it, declaring that they would not cease until the air and sea blockades were lifted in Sanaa and Hudaydah. However, in a recent development in June, pro- Hadi coalition and southern separatist forces have agreed to a ceasefire and will begin talks on implementing the Riyadh Agreement again.

The Heavy Humanitarian Cost of the Conflict

While the conflict continues, the toll it has taken on the lives of the Yemenis is disastrous. If the UN numbers are to taken into consideration, then more than a hundred thousand people have died since the beginning of the war in 2015. Twenty-four million Yemenis are in dire need of assistance, the numbers of people who have been displaced are around 4 million, and the nation is also suffering from the cholera outbreak which has affected over one million people. According to the UN[AD1], the internally displaced people, returnees, refugees and asylum seekers are distraught and in desperate need of regular humanitarian aid for a living. Moreover, the recent floods have affected over one lakh people, and the risk of malaria and dengue infections has significantly increased. 

Paucity of Funds

Another prevalent issue clouding the citizenry is the lack of funds. UNHCR claims, $89.4 million is acutely needed to assist internally displaced families, refugees, asylum seekers. However, many of the agencies, including a significant donor, US Agency for International Development, slashed their funding even before COVID-19 emerged. They raised issues of the Houthis hindering and diverting the aid distribution, which although the Houthi insurgents dismissed as baseless claims, the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2019 suggested that they were actively impeding the transportation of food, water, medicine, diesel to the localities. Furthermore, The World Food Programme announced in mid-April that it was cutting the food aid provided to the Houthi controlled areas by half. The harrowing part being that these cuts occurred at a time when at least 10 million lives were facing the wrath of the famine, and more than 1 million pregnant women are said to be acutely malnourished. 

Analysing the International Humanitarian Law Violations and Crimes

According to the final report presented by the Panel of Experts on Yemen to the UNSC, civilian infrastructure has been significantly destroyed due to the bombings, and the panel found no evidence whatsoever regarding any actions taken by any side to mitigate the devastating impacts of the attacks. The report also declared that all the factions involved in this conflict have flagrantly violated human rights and international humanitarian law

Conflict Classification and Applicable Laws/Conventions/Protocols

The situation in Yemen has been characterised as a non- international armed conflict by the ICJ. Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions refers to it as a ‘conflict not of an international character’, but does not provide a full-fledged definition. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia stated that a non-international armed conflict exists when there is “protracted armed violence between government authorities and organised armed groups or between such groups within a state.” There are two crucial prerequisites for constituting this; (1) There is an intensive hostility between the two parties and; (2) The non-state party possess organised arm forces. For this conflict to be converted into an international armed conflict, it must be proved that the non-state actor is entirely controlled by a third party outside the non-state. Unless it can be proved in totality that the Houthis are being controlled by Iran, which the Emirati coalition claims vociferously, this conflict cannot be termed as an international armed conflict yet. 

Yemen and all Saudi Arabia-led coalition states are parties to the primary International Humanitarian Law (IHL) treaties including, the Geneva Conventions, 1949 (GCs) and Additional Protocol II, 1977 (AP II), both of which specifically apply to non-international armed conflicts. Additionally, the Houthis fulfil the ‘territorial control’ requirement set under Article 1(1), AP II, i.e. acting under a responsible command and controlling a sufficient portion of territory that enables them to “carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement the Protocol.” Together with treaty law, customary IHL also applies. 

Article 14 of the AP II prohibits the parties from employing starvation as a military tactic or prohibits attacking, destroying any of the objects indispensable for human life such as foodstuffs, water system by characterising them as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Under customary international law, it is the duty of the parties to allow for the passage of humanitarian aid unhindered

States such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are not a party to some significant human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, the human rights protections afforded by the ICCPR, for example, the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of life, falls under the ambit of customary international law, and therefore, is binding on all states. Besides, these States are party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises the right to life under Article 6 and reaffirms IHL protections under Article 38

Conduct of Hostilities in Yemen

Since the Saudi-Emirati coalition militarily intervened in Yemen, it has been accused of committing indiscriminate attacks against civilians and also wreaking havoc on civilian objects such as residential houses, medical facilities, local markets and food storage sites. All the three factions have indulged in committing arbitrary arrests, detentions, ill-treatment, sexual violence and torture of civilians aligning with their political and economic motives. Additionally, they have enforced disappearances of captured individuals, mainly civilians and suspect affiliates of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State. The parties have also been accused of using heavy explosive weapons in densely populated areas, causing numerous casualties. Aerial and naval blockades imposed by the Emirati coalition have caused many disruptions to the food supply.

Eminent international and regional experts on Yemen have identified members directly responsible for various crimes and urged for them to be investigated and prosecuted. Despite many obstacles, the experts managed to collect a wide array of evidence alleging violations and crimes. They have reasonable grounds to believe that the Houthi-Saleh fighters violated the obligation to respect and protect medical personnel and facilities at all times and in all circumstances, as well as the obligation to respect and protect the wounded and sick leading to violations of international humanitarian law

Due to the non-existence of the principles of the Rule of Law and inefficient administration, Yemen has become a susceptible ground for exploitative entrepreneurs, who also head many public institutions. With the absence of transparency and accountability, the national wealth and external aid are increasingly being wrongfully diverted or lost due to the corruption that is highly prevalent within the Government of Yemen and the Houthis. One of the primary reasons that the Houthis remain unified is due to their suppression of opposition within Houthi-controlled areas.

The Convulsing Situation of Proxy Wars

On the one hand, it is a known fact that the pro-Hadi coalition, which is the Saudi-Emirati coalition received some vital intelligence and logistical help from the US. However, the UK and France, are also indulging in proxy wars, aiding the Emirati coalition by supplying weapons. In 2016, a Saudi spokesperson admitted that at least some of the coalition’s cluster bombs were manufactured in the United Kingdom. In 2019, many humanitarian groups including, the Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), Potere al Popolo (PaP) (Power to the People) and the CGIL (Italian General Confederation of Labor) blocked Saudi Arabia’s cargo ship Bahri-Yanbu from collecting weapons at the French Port of Le Havre, citing it to be a violation of the UN Arms Trade Treaty. Italian union workers then refused to load electricity generators on the ship and prevented it from docking, reasoning that the weapons on board would be used against civilians. Despite these hurdles, the ship docked. Arms from the U.S, UK, China, France, and others have been supplying weapons to the Saudi coalition, which it reportedly uses to injure, maim and kill citizens

The Crushing Burden of Coronavirus Pandemic

What makes this humanitarian crisis even more devastating is the fact that while COVID-19 has affected almost every part of the world, having brought nations to a halt, with over seven lakh casualties already, Yemen is no exception to it. The official nationwide toll is over 1,796 cases and 512 dead, but those figures are an enormous undercount in this war-torn country. Dr Eshraq Al Subaei, who is the spokeswoman for the National Committee combatting COVID-19 claims that the Houthis are actively concealing the COVID-19 numbers. They are also threatening officials from divulging any information. The cases are in hundreds, with meagre testing rates. The health infrastructure is in shambles and on the brink of collapse. Half of the country’s medical facilities are either closed or only partially functioning due to neglect, damage from the war or lack of basic infrastructure such as running water and electricity. In Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, all the hospitals combined possess four ventilators. Nationwide, Yemen has a few hundred ventilators to serve a population of 30 million and the widespread hunger and disease has only weakened the population, thereby, making them more vulnerable to the coronavirus disease. Furthermore, social distancing is not being maintained with shops and malls being open. Recently, the UN had warned that deaths resulting from COVID-19 could surpass the number of casualties from the last 5 years of war. UNICEF, in June appealed for $50 million funds to adequately respond to the COVID-19 situation in the nation. 

Conclusion: An Uncertain Future

UN had described the situation in Yemen even before COVID-19 as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world” with almost 80% of Yemen’s population or 24 million needing some form of assistance.

Over 17 million Yemenis are in dire need of food assistance. Yemen imports 90% of its food supplies, and hence, the eyes are on Hudayda, the nation’s biggest port, through which most of the food supplies enter into the country. The Saudi-led coalition’s bombings have had a devastating effect on the facilities, disabling the cranes which unload cargo, subsequently leading to a sharp rise in the levels of hunger and directly responsible for millions plunging into poverty.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared that as of now, every 4 in 5 persons in Yemen need aid to survive through this catastrophe. Focusing on the cultural aspect, this is another one of many Shia-Sunni rivalries which have unfortunately led to the widening of the gap between both the religious communities. 

Additionally, it is worrisome that the IS-affiliated outfits and the Al-Qaeda groups might grab opportunity amidst the growing tensions between the main factions and instability in the region to plant attacks benefitting their interests. 

This is the worst and the most massive humanitarian crisis, and it is the weak citizenry who continues to pay hefty prices. The country is at the receiving end of not only the civilian war, cholera outbreak, floods, famines but also the COVID-19 pandemic which has engulfed the whole world right now. The scarcity of funds has exacerbated the poor living conditions of a country that was impoverished even before the war broke out. The situation is convulsing, dangerous and is spiralling out of control. The countries globally should recognise the situation and the UN should take a more serious note of this and partake actively to de-escalate the tensions by holding talks, achieving a political settlement to end the war and focus on a long-lasting solution for peace and forcing accountability on the parties for human rights violations. 


Yashi Bajpai is a student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala. 


Photo Credits: AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP 

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