While all eyes remain on the looming Afghan crisis post-US troops withdrawal, countless Covid-19 waves disrupting the global economic wheel, and the Israel-Palestine crisis making international headlines — little attention is given to the plight of the Yemenis, who undeniably face the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. Yemen, the poorest Arab country, has been marred by a civil war since the last decade, with innocent civilians being the victims of non-stop aerial bombardment, countless diseases taking lives of millions of children, and rising sectarian violence leading to unprecedented political turmoil.
To understand the root causes of the ongoing intensified Yemen war, it is imperative to go back a decade ago when the Arab Spring, a pro-democracy uprising against dictators who ruled the Arab world for decades, erupted on a massive scale. As a result, Tunisia became the first Arab country to become a democracy while many other Arab countries, including Libya and Syria, became a victim of anarchy and civil war that still haunt us today. Yemen faced the very same fate.
The galvanising Arab Spring uprising forced Yemen’s authoritarian president, Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Mansour Hadi, who also faced predicaments in his early days. Rampant corruption, rising unemployment and record-breaking inflation added fuel to the already brewing political fire. The rebels and the Houthis, Yemen’s Shia minority who fought during Yemen’s authoritarian regime for decades, inevitably started to fish in troubled waters for political power. What caused more alarm was how the Sunni forces, once loyal to Saleh, also backed the Houthi movement and gradually took over Yemen’s capital Sana’a.
With more than half of Yemen being controlled by its Shia minority, backed by the regional power Iran, it was quite inevitable for alarm bells to go off in Saudi Arabia and many Sunni Arab states, which started attacks in many parts of Yemen to defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi’s government. The Saudi coalition partners — the US, the UK and France — provided logistic and military support that ended up being used on innocent Yemenis, including women and children, who simply had no part in the intensified war. What is worse is that militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the ISIS group took advantage of the political violence by carrying out deadly attacks on Southern Yemen, especially in Aden, a key strategic location for international trade and shipping.
In 2017, in an attempt to cut logistics support for the Houthis, the Saudis sealed Yemen’s Hodeida port, which was the single most important point of entry for food and basic supplies needed to prevent famine and cholera. More than 70% of aid enters through the key Hodeida port, providing food, fuel, and medicine that the population needs for survival. But with the blockage in place Yemen faced a severe famine alongside the world’s biggest cholera outbreak, with thousands dying.
The blockade eventually ended after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a ceasefire agreement, a rare UN success indeed. However, even today more than 8 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine while at least 2 million children are malnourished, including almost 360,000 children under five who are struggling to survive in the war zone.
Since the start of the civil war, civilian casualties have escalated. Saudis deny responsibility for aerial bombardment and blockage of food supplies — something that Amnesty International and many human right organisations categorically reject. Why were the champions of human rights quiet about these war crimes? Because many coalition partners, including the US and the UK, make billions out of the lucrative weapon industry. While the war in Yemen has caused a massive humanitarian crisis, many made fortunes off the country’s oil reserves. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), Yemen has proven oil reserves of around 3 billion barrels and 17 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
For years, UN-led ceasefire proposals have been rejected by either the Houthis who are keen to expand their territorial claims, or the Saudis, who want the end of the Houthi dominance in Yemen. The UN’s special envoy to Yemen since 2018, Martin Griffith, started his job brightly by removing the blockade at the Hodeida port through UN-led mediations but eventually failed to bring the Saudis and Houthis on the same table for a power-sharing agreement. He will be replaced soon — a move that may be considered as a reset in the stalled peace process in Yemen. His final report to the UNSC in June 2021 outlined fundamental failures of the top-down approach to a smooth conflict resolution in Yemen.
Today, negotiations must not centre around the Saudis and the Houthis but must also include the broader Yemeni population. The UN and the international community must revamp its negotiation strategy. They must include the interests of local stakeholders, women, youth, tribes, and the civil society at large, whose voices have been oppressed for very long. What the Saudis, Houthi forces and rebel groups must understand is that there is no military solution to the ongoing war. New constructive agreements must see the light of day focusing on eventual peace, release of prisoners, and end of political detentions.
The Westphalian system upon which the international legal system once thrived is in a shambles today. Yemen’s sovereignty has been attacked for far too long, while the poor, vulnerable and poverty-driven Yemenis face the major toll. Realpolitik may dominate the world of international relations but those in the global community who claim to be the champions of human rights and freedom must speak much louder for the plight of the Yemeni people. The country needs medical aid and food, not bombs.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2021.
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