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As the Yemen War officially enters its third year, the UN has declared the situation on the ground a humanitarian crisis. 80% of the population is in desperate need of humanitarian aid. 22 million people, half of whom are children, are suffering from severe malnutrition. There is a lack of access to clean water and poor levels of sanitation, which has caused disease and death. A cholera outbreak has affected over a million people and is the worst in recorded history. The war is damaging the country in almost every possible way, and yet peace talks between the parties continue to fail. There is no clear path forward and the end of the conflict does not seem to be in sight. So just how did the situation in Yemen get to where it is today?
Yemen had been in a state of turmoil over the several years leading up to the eruption of this current conflict. After the Arab Spring uprisings, longstanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh stood down, and the leadership was passed on to then Deputy President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi did not manage to improve the poor economic state of Yemen, and so unemployment continued to increase and food insecurity and sectarian rifts throughout the country remained. The Houthis, an anti-American group who call for a more representative government, rose up against President Hadi and took control of parts of the country including the capital city Sanaa and the important seaport of Hodeidah. Those loyal to President Hadi fought back against the Houthi forces, and the instability reached a tipping point. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took advantage of the situation and expanded in the region, complicating the issue at hand.
What was initially a civil conflict became an international war in March of 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States intervened in Yemen. The campaign has included bombing and a naval blockade of the main port. The Saudi’s allege this is to stop the influx of Iranian weapons into the country, but it has also stopped the flow of medical and food aid to the entire population. Some have alleged that the Houthi group are backed by Iran, but the link has not been made clear. The Houthis have denied a tie to the Iranians and say it is an excuse for Saudi Arabia to intervene in the region.
Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have attacked Saudi Arabia and the coalition for violating international law and blatantly attacking civilians. Hospitals have specifically been targeted in numerous bombing raids, and this has led to a withdrawal of Doctors without Borders from the region. Several Western states have sided with Saudi Arabia, as they have an interest in ensuring Iran does not gain a stronghold in the region. The United States has been involved in Yemen particularly in relation to stopping the spread of Al Qaeda (AQAP).
There have been several attempts at peace talks between the Houthi-Saleh delegation (Saleh referring to those who support the former President) and the Hadi loyalists, but clearly, none have successfully resulted in ending the conflict. Even with the appointment of a UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen to administer the peace talks and act as a third party negotiator, the talks have not yet been brought to fruition. While the continued talks are a positive sign, there is clearly an emergent need to solve the issue and address the humanitarian crisis that continues to plague the country. If the talks are unable to lead to a complete political resolution, the issue perhaps needs to be simplified and a focus placed directly on finding a solution to the humanitarian impacts of the war.
Saudi Arabia has, with weapons sold to them by the US, bombed farms, water and food supplies, hospitals and the essential seaport of Hodeida. Yemen is the poorest state on the Peninsula, and even pre-war relied on imports for up to 90% of the food. The destruction of port facilities has rendered Yemen incapable of providing the necessary supplies to its population, and now the country is teetering on the edge of famine. The port is also the main way in which aid could enter the country, and combined with the naval blockade in force by the coalition, barely any necessary supplies are entering the country.
These actions – the specific targeting of civilians and hospitals – are illegal under international law and yet Saudi Arabia continues to go unpunished for the attacks. The UN needs to hold these countries such as Saudi Arabia, that choose to violate the law, accountable for their actions. Ignoring such blatant violations does nothing but anger those who abide by the law and encourage the same destructive use of force in the future.
By choosing not to pull up Saudi Arabia, the UN reaffirms the assumption that many states within the MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa) have, that Western powers and their allies do not have to abide by the same standards that they do, and are in a way protected by international law. Historically, European and Western states have welded the law to their advantage to ensure that they remain superior to developing states. The reinforcement of this assumption does not encourage universal involvement and acceptance of international law, but rather provides the impetus for disillusionment in the Middle East.
While Saudi Arabia has been carrying out the attacks, the weapons used have come predominately from the US, among other countries. The US consistently makes around $40 billion per year from weapons sales, and yet they are not held accountable for the damage the weapons cause. The US has also sold weapons to Iran and if, as some allege, Yemen is merely the battlefield for a proxy war between the two countries, the US has armed both sides. China and Russia also sell arms to developing countries, which again demonstrates the increasing disparity between the two groups and the mechanism by which less powerful nations remain dependent on greater ones.
How can it be legal to supply a war? How can it be that there is no punishment for selling the weapons that are used to kill thousands of people? Foreign intervention – it has been demonstrated in the Middle East – does not end a war, it merely prolongs it. The US and other powerful states are making money off a war that is destroying Yemen and has no clear end in sight. The UN needs to put mechanisms in place that ensure humanitarian assistance can reach the starving population. The Hodeida seaport should be restored and re-opened, and an impartial international presence should facilitate the movement of food and aid through the port to the people as a matter of urgency. Although this does not solve the political issues at hand, it will alleviate some of the sufferings that are devastating the country. The holding of peace talks should continue between the parties, but without US interests and influence, as the answer to a peaceful Yemeni future will be a political structure that is designed and implemented by the Yemeni people themselves.