Saudi Arabia is moving soldiers, tanks and artillery to the Yemeni border as it steps up its assault on the Houthi rebels that have gained so much ground in recent months. The Kingdom is refusing to rule out a ground invasion, despite the lack of success that its intervention in Yemen has had so far, with the Houthis continuing to maintain a strong foothold in much of the country. Air strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, known as the GCC, or Gulf Cooperation Council, are having a devastating effect on an already war-torn and desperate country. The legality of the Saudi campaign is highly questionable yet the United Nations has so far neglected to condemn it, instead approving an arms embargo on the Houthi militias, calling for an end to the violence and an engagement with negotiations for a peaceful political transition.
The GCC, which claims that its bombing campaign is in defence of Yemen’s democratic integrity, is ironically comprised of ‘an unhealthy mixture of backward family dictatorships and corrupt governments that essentially are the antithesis to democracy’ says Mahdi Nazemroaya. The bombing has not been authorised by the UN Security Council, and does not qualify under Article 51 of the UN Charter because the Yemeni crisis is not an international conflict. The only supposed justification is that Yemen’s absentee President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, has asked for the assistance. However his claim to hold leadership of Yemen, a vital prerequisite for the legality of the campaign, is shaky at best. His term of office as President has expired, and he publicly resigned the presidency before renouncing the decision. He was also the only candidate in the 2012 elections, and has now been usurped by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, who presides over the Revolutionary Committee.
The bombing of Yemen is therefore almost certainly a violation of international law. If international law were upheld, the Saudi-led coalition could also be guilty of war crimes for targeting civilian infrastructure. The UN says ‘numerous hospitals, schools and other civilian buildings have been damaged by airstrikes’. A camp for internally displaced Yemenis was bombed, causing massive civilian casualties, while children playing football in the capital, Sana’a, were struck by shrapnel from a cluster bomb, in a haunting event reminiscent of an Israeli strike on a beach in Gaza last summer.
Despite these serious questions over the Saudi campaign, the United Kingdom and especially the United States have stepped up their support for the Saudis, increasing intelligence operations and hastening the supply of arms to Saudi Arabia. Both Western countries provide the Saudis with military hardware, bombs, and fuel for planes, as well as intelligence and logistical support.
The West has a vested interest in the Yemen crisis, that is, ensuring that the Gulf of Aden and the Mandeb Strait remain in friendly hands, particularly in the light of Iran’s increasing regional role. The Mandeb Strait would become particularly important in the unlikely event that Iran closed the Strait of Hormuz to international oil shipments. The defence of the Saudi-led, US-backed campaign is that Saudi Arabia has legitimate security interests in ensuring the stability of the Yemeni state. This – rightly – was similarly not seen as justification for Russian intervention in Ukraine. Russia is currently suffering from United Nations’ sanctions. It seems that international law is only applied selectively, as is evidenced by this and many other cases.
Of far greater concern is the humanitarian situation. Conservative estimates put the number of dead at over 700, though it is likely to be much higher. At least 100,000 people have been displaced, many fleeing to the small African country of Djibouti, which already harbours a large Somalian refugee population and is unlikely to be able to support many additional displaced people.
In Yemen itself, there are shortages of virtually every essential. Prior to the conflict, Yemen was already the Arab world’s poorest state, importing 90 per cent of its staple foods. Now there are severe shortages of basic foodstuffs, as well as fuel required to transport desperately needed resources. The number of casualties from the conflict is likely to increase significantly in weeks to come, with no end in sight and a dearth of medical supplies and doctors. There is also a dangerous lack of electricity and clean drinking water, which will in all probability see many more die, particularly children, from preventable illnesses.
The situation in the port city of Aden is particularly concerning, with dead bodies lying in the streets, and extreme scarcity of food and water. Children in Yemen are especially at risk. UNICEF estimates that 70 children have so far been killed, but actual figures are almost certainly far higher. Startlingly, the UNICEF representative for Yemen, Julien Harneis, believes that children make up a third of those fighting in various armed groups across Yemen.
Aside from the devastating short-term consequences, the war in Yemen will undo decades of progress towards development, and will see the country become even more backward than it was prior to the conflict. It is essential that other nations provide humanitarian assistance in the form of food, clean water, medicines, doctors, and other essential items, as well as offering an open border to Yemeni refugees, rather than exacerbating the conflict by providing aggressors with military aid and hardware.
Regrettably, the situation in Yemen is creating a security vacuum that may be filled by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State. Certainly there is no positive end in sight for the people of Yemen, who must be supported to the fullest extent by the international community and prioritised above the perceived political advantages of engaging in the conflict militarily. Past events in the region do not seem to offer much hope that this will happen.