The Yemen Crisis

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Foreign Policy

America’s Responsibility to Protect Human Rights in Yemen

by Ivan Grandov

It seems that 2020 is the year everyone became an activist.  Chances are, one of the first things you see when you open social media is someone reposting a petition or infographic, trying to spread awareness and support of a given social issue or current event.  Because of this, more and more people have recently become privy to what the UNHCR calls “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.  The ongoing Yemeni Civil War has resulted in 3.6 million people being forced to leave their homes, and 24 million Yemenis–almost 85% of Yemen’s population–being in dire need of humanitarian aid. Starting in October 2016, Yemen is experiencing the largest cholera epidemic on record, with 2.2 million suspected cases as of November 2019.  But what these posts do not mention is that starvation and disease are not the only factors in this crisis, there are also numerous war crimes being committed by all sides of the Civil War.  According to The Guardian, more than 12,000 civilians have died so far in the conflict, largely as a result of frequent bombing campaigns by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  As Americans, we may feel disconnected from the crisis, but troublingly, that this is not the case, as we are the ones supplying the Emiratis and Saudis with the weapons they are using to commit these atrocities.  As the world’s largest superpower and beacon of freedom and democracy, we cannot continue to be complicit with these crimes against humanity.

An important part of understanding America’s part in the conflict is to understand the history of the conflict, and to understand the history of the conflict, it is important to understand the history of Yemen.  Yemen has not historically been a unified nation.  In fact, it has only been unified since 1990.  From 1517 to 1918, North Yemen was controlled by the Ottoman Empire.  Following the Armistice of Mudros, which marked the surrender of the Ottomans to the Allied Powers in World War I, North Yemen gained independence and became known as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen.  Arab Nationalists supported by the United Arab Republic (Egypt and Syria) overthrew the Kingdom in a civil war lasting from 1962 to 1970, at which point it became the Yemen Arab Republic.  From 1872 to 1967, South Yemen was controlled by the British under the Aden Protectorate (named after the port city that served as its capital).  The British left the region after an uprising by two guerilla groups known as the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY), who attacked the British and each other, vying for control of South Yemen.  Following the exit of British troops from the region, the NLF seized power from the FLOSY, and established the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a Marxist-Leninst one party state controlled by the Socialist Party of Yemen, closely allying itself with the USSR.  With the downfall of the Soviet Union, the only communist country in the Middle East unified itself with North Yemen on May 22, 1990.  The president of North Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had already been in power for eleven years, became president of the newly unified Republic of Yemen and the General Secretary of South Yemen Ali Salim al-Beidh became Vice President.  Only four short years after unification, South Yemen tried and failed to separate in a short civil war, citing Saleh’s authoritarian and autocratic tendencies as reason for separation.  Al-Beidh was replaced with Field Marshall Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.  Around the same time, the Zaidi Shiites of Northern Yemen became discontent with Saleh’s authoritarian rule, believing that they were not being served.  Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi became a religious and political leader of the Zaidis, and after a stint in parliament, returned to North Yemen to lead an insurgency against Saleh’s government.  After his death at the hands of the Yemeni military, the Houthi family became the leaders of the Zaidi insurgents, who now called themselves the Houthis.  The Arab Spring of 2011 led to Saleh leaving office in February 2012, being replaced by Hadi.  There was peace in Yemen for some time, but not for long.  

The Yemeni Civil War began in September 2014, when Houthi forces captured the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a and put President Hadi under house arrest.  Hadi escaped to Aden, then later to Saudi Arabia, after the Houthis captured the port city.  Saudi Arabia formed a coalition with several other majority-Sunni countries to crush the Houthi rebellion, mainly the United Arab Emirates, and the UN passed a resolution that banned arm sales to the Houthis.  Though the Kingdom claims not to be acting in their own self-interest, Saudi Arabia has heavily involved themselves in the Yemeni Civil War for two main reasons.  First, the Houthi rebels are supported, funded, armed, and trained by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main adversary in the region.  Saudi Arabia perceives Iranian influence on their southern border as a major threat, and rightly so, as Houthis have fire rockets into Saudi Arabia on multiple occasions.  Second, Houthis control the area of Yemen adjacent to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, an important shipping channel, particularly for oil, from the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Because of this, the Yemeni Civil War has become a bloody proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  The war has continued to escalate, with civilians being caught in the crossfire, and the Houthis have made it clear they are not interested in peaceful surrender, as when Saleh, who openly allied himself with the Houthis in May 2015, tried to end the war diplomatically in 2017, he was executed by the Houthis.

In early 2015, the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition began bombing large areas of Houthi controlled territory, primarily the capital, Sana’a, and the Houthi stronghold city of Sa’dah.  In October of that year, the Saudi coalition bombed a Doctors Without Borders (DWB) hospital in Sa’dah, completely destroying the facility, though thankfully not resulting in any direct casualties.  According to UNICEF, the DWB hospital in Sa’nah was the 39th hospital hit in Yemen since March of that year.  DWB claimed that the coordinates of the hospital were shared with the Coalition, and that now that the hospital was destroyed, 200,000 people would be without healthcare.  Coalition airstrikes of civilian targets continued into 2016, when a series of high casualty attacks made global news.  First, there was the Coalition airstrike of a hospital in the district of Abs, which killed 19 people and wounded 24.  Witnesses say that there were no armed people at the hospital, which was supported by DWB and UNICEF.  At the time of the attack, the hospital was reportedly treating victims of another Coalition airstrike on a school, which left 10 children between 8 and 15 years old dead, and 30 wounded.  Second was the bombing of the port city of Hudaydah, which not only killed many civilians, but also severely hindered humanitarian efforts to provide food and aid to Yemen, worsening the crisis.  The highest profile attack of 2016, however, was an airstrike on a funeral in the capital city of Sana’a, killing 155 people and wounding at least 525, making it the largest death toll for a single strike so far in the war.  The UN stated that the airstrike was a “double tap”, two bombings carried out in quick seccession, which is a war crime, because the second strike is intended to kill first responders and survivors.  The ordinance used in the attack was identified to be of US origin. The Saudi and Emirati-led coalition has continued to carry out attacks of a similar nature up until present day, with little regard for international humanitarian law, because they have not faced consequences from the countries that arm and support them.

Though the United States has no active duty personnel, we play a large part in the War in Yemen.  The US supplies the vast majority of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including the bombs and the F-15 fighter planes that the Coalition is using to bob civilians.  In fact, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are our top two customers for weapon sales.  Up until May 2016, the US was supplying Saudi Arabia with cluster bombs, which are banned by most of the international community for their risk to civilian populations.  Most directly, American air tankers carried out mid-air refueling of Saudi fighter jets, which allowed bombing campaigns to continue longer and more efficiently.  In late 2015 and early 2016, the Obama administration tried to mitigate civilian casualties by giving the Saudis a “no strike list”, instructing them not to bomb locations with high civilian populations like schools and hospitals, but this attempt proved unsuccessful, as the Saudis completely ignored it.  This, however, did not stop America’s support for Saudi Arabia in the war, as we continued supplying the Saudis with arms and mid-air refueling.  Obama’s refusal to press Saudi Arabia on this issue went against his promise “to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at home and abroad”, but not unexpected, as over the course of his presidency, America sold over $100 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, more than any other president.  Saudi Arabia found a strong ally in the election of Donald Trump, who only 4 months into his presidency negotiated a deal with Saudi Arabia for $110 billion dollars in arms and $350 billion in investment in the US over 10 years.  In 2018, in the wake of the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist living in America and critic of the royal family who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, President Trump released a statement.  In the statement, the president made it clear that he would not pull any support from Saudi Arabia, saying “If we foolishly cancel [the Saudi arms deal], Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business.”  In the statement, Trump also justified Saudi intervention in the war in Yemen by placing the blame for the war squarely on Iran, saying, “Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave.” Despite arming and supporting the Houthi rebels, Iran does not actually have any troops in Yemen.  Trump’s stance on the Yemeni Civil War is clearly guided by his opposition to Iran and his arms deal with the Saudis.  In May of that year, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, on the grounds that it was too friendly to Iran, and in January 2020, Trump ordered the assasination of the top military official of Iran, General Qasem Soleimani.  This hardline opposition to Iran at best has kept Trump from pulling support from the Coalition, and at worst has made him ok with the war crimes being committed in Yemen.  The only silver lining of the Trump administration for the people of Yemen is the ending of mid-air refuels of Saudi fighter jets by American planes in 2018, but even this was called for by the Saudis themselves, saying they were now able to do so self-sufficiently.  In 2019, Congress passed a joint resolution to invoke the War Powers Act to remove US Armed forces from the conflict in Yemen, with bipartisan support.  The president then vetoed the resolution, which then died in Congress, failing to garner enough votes to overturn the veto.

The crisis in Yemen still rages on, even when it is overshadowed in the news cycle.  With over 100,000 dead, and millions sick and starving, this war is not one that the United States should be actively supporting through our arms.  The incoming Biden administration may bring changes to US policy towards the War in Yemen, as well as the Saudi government.  In October of 2020, Biden announced, “Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”  This forceful messaging is reassuring to anyone concerned with the involvement of the United States in Saudi war crimes.  However, lofty promises on the campaign trail often don’t lead to action in office, especially when the United States has sought good relations with Saudi Arabia for decades.  It will all come down to the diplomatic strategy of Biden’s Secretary of State nominee, Antony Blinken—an initial supporter of the War in Yemen who changed his position in 2018.  All in all, the future for the people of Yemen remains unclear, but the incoming administration may be a reason to be hopeful.

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17-year-old Sarah Ma enjoys an active schedule of political engagement. She currently serves as a Political Fellow for Planned Parenthood Votes in Maine organizing to flip the Senate blue and as Publishing Director of the Institute for Youth in Politics. After graduating from high school at 16, Sarah currently resides in NYC and is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in music as a scholarship student at The Juilliard School.