The Atrocity of Yemen – What to do?

Children and families in Bani Husheish, northern Sana’a, Yemen.
Children accompany their families to the food distribution centre in the Bani Husheish area, in northern Sana’a, where WFP, with support from the EU, provides food assistance to displaced families. Photo: WFP/ Fares Khoailed

Last week I commented on the atrocity that was occurring in Syria, and asked what the world, and we here in New Zealand, might do.

An associate-atrocity is occurring in the same region, in Yemen, but with less global scrutiny. The same questions need to be addressed.

In a sense, the proxy support from the major powers, they who are charged with primary responsibility for peace and security, is reversed. The Western powers (US and Britain) support direct military engagement by a GCC-endorsed coalition led by Saudi Arabia (with aerial combat support from the Gulf states plus Sudan, Jordan and Morocco). The ‘coalition’ aims to continue to recognise the ‘legitimate’ Hadi government and oppose the rebel Houthi regime currently in the capital, Sana’a. The allegations persist that the Houthi regime is supported and assisted by Iran.

Thus a similar Islamic sectarian-political struggle plays out in Yemen to that in Iraq and Syria, with Al-Qaeda and IS profiting through territorial footholds.

The difference is that the UN Security Council gets resolutions through on Yemen, because China and Russia do not veto Western/GCC initiatives.

The reason is that, for Russia, Yemen does not offer the strategic military value that Syria does. It is the opposite: Aden has been a Western military stronghold for decades. So the UN resolutions go through, recognising the Hadi government, and applying sanctions against the Houthi leaders. China does not veto since its doctrinal rationale for vetoing draft resolutions over Syria (interference against the established government) translates into support for the drafts over Yemen (support for the established government in exile).

That is the political-strategic calculus. What it does not explain, or justify, is the continuing egregious breach of humanitarian law that the UN-sanctioned, GCC-led military campaign, has inflicted on Yemeni civilians. The details are reasonably well-known, and do not require description here. Suffice to note that, in January ’16, a UN panel of experts reported to the Security Council that the coalition had undertaken 119 sorties in Yemen that violated international humanitarian law. The report called for an international commission, set up by the Security Council to “investigate reports of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Yemen by all parties and to identify the perpetrators of such violations”.

The coalition, which had opposed such an inquiry, immediately established ‘an independent team of experts’ to investigate and draw lessons from the military campaign.

In February 2016, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide said: “We now expect that commitments by the Yemeni authorities and by Saudi Arabia to conduct credible and independent investigations into all alleged violations and provide reparations to victims will be swiftly implemented. It is imperative that the international community also gives immediate consideration to the most effective means of supporting this goal, including the possibility of establishing an international independent and impartial mechanism to support accountability in Yemen”.

Since then, the apparent breaches of humanitarian law continue. The efforts at a peace settlement continue, unsuccessfully. The US, however, has distanced itself from the military campaign, through suspending the sale of guided missiles. Not the UK, where it was revealed last week that British cluster bombs, exported to Saudi Arabia some time back, are being used in Yemen, with severe civilian casualties. The UK refuses to suspend military assistance to Saudi Arabia, citing the utility of intelligence from that country in prevention of terror attacks in the UK.

Setting aside the recent public gaffes by the British foreign secretary over Saudi Arabia and the disowning of his comments by the Prime Minister, the refusal to suspend arms to Saudi Arabia is symbolic of the distorted perception, within the UK and elsewhere, of what it will take to diminish the terrorist threat.

Whether it is Russia in Syria, or US/UK in Yemen, so long as the major powers fail in their requirement to secure peace through genuine collective action in the Security Council, and instead ply their strategic trade by proxy in competitive relationship, the civil wars will play out unabated until exhaustion decides the outcome, and terrorism will flourish.