Yemenis being overlooked in the fray
What the UN should be doing is developing a concrete roadmap for a political solution
WHERE are the voices calling for the human rights norm, Responsibility to Protect (R2P), for civilians in Yemen? Has the US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, the brains behind this doctrine, forgotten the civilians of the country?
We heard a lot of noise from her about protecting the civilians of Libya in 2011 when Gaddafi was the protagonist, but relatively little about protecting the civilians of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world.
The Saudi-led coalition – which includes the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and Sudan – has been bombing Yemen since March 26 in an attempt to restore former Yemeni president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power, following his ousting by Houthi rebels.
Yemen has become a war of attrition, with the deliberate targeting of civilian areas.
The coalition has repeatedly struck residential compounds, which, according to Human Rights Watch, is a war crime, and the pro-Houthi forces have repeatedly put civilians and hospitals at risk in their military operations.
As the Yemenis say, they do not have oil in their DNA, or other significant resources, so nobody really cares.
More than a month ago, the UN declared Yemen a level-three humanitarian emergency – the highest on its scale. Thirteen-million Yemenis are struggling to find food, 4 000 have been killed in the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, the bombing of medical facilities has led to the near collapse of health services, and almost all power in the country is destroyed.
With 90% of Yemen’s food, and 100% of its medicine coming from outside, the consequences of the Arab naval blockade and the inability to access civilian populations has been catastrophic.
According to Thierry Goffeau, the project co-ordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Yemen who just left the country, it is just horror after horror. “Even in Gaza, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia and the Central African Republic, I have never seen a situation as bad as in Yemen, where the fighting never stops,” he said.
After 10 years of the international community invoking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, Yemen provides the ultimate example of how this doctrine is selectively enforced according to the strategic interests of the big powers.
There is no question that this doctrine was premised on good humanitarian reasons – that if a state failed to protect its people, that the responsibility fell to the international community. The problem lies with its selective enforcement.
Instead of restraining the Arab coalition, the US Barack Obama administration supports its intervention, and is rushing military supplies and providing logistics. Despite the global ban, the US has sold Saudi Arabia $640 million (R7.7 billion) worth of cluster bombs over the past two years, which are now being used to carpet-bomb Yemen.
The US is also using the opportunity to reignite arms transfers to Egypt in the form of Hellfire missiles. These have been used in populated areas to devastating effect, and are being sold to Egypt while that country is engaged in a bombing campaign of Yemen.
What the UN should be doing is developing a concrete roadmap for a political solution. We haven’t heard this call from the US ambassador to the UN, who is the supposed champion of R2P.
What is largely ignored in the narrative on the conflict is the fact that the Houthis are part of Yemen’s social fabric, and had been part of the UN-brokered power sharing deal that was on the verge of being finalised when Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes.
The Houthis enjoy popular support in many areas of Yemen, and had legitimate grievances against the government.
In the UN-brokered talks, they had been calling for more effective protection of communities from the expansion of al-Qaeda, a proportionate level of political participation, and for corruption to be addressed effectively. This agenda hardly places them on an axis of evil.
The Saudis allege that the Houthis are being backed by Iran in order to control Yemen as a base for Iran’s regional domination. But Iran claims to have had little to do with the Houthis since their emergence as a political force in Yemen.
According to a 2009 Wikileaks cable from the US embassy in Riyadh, former Yemeni president Abdullah Saleh had provided “false or exaggerated information on Iranian assistance to the Houthis in order to enlist direct Saudi involvement and regionalise the conflict”.
While the Iranians admit to providing the Houthis with military advisers in the present context, they claim they are not arming them.
Painting the conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is misleading, and ignores the root causes of the conflict.
What Power needs to remember when she advocates R2P and the need to make the doctrine real, is that the lives of civilians in Yemen should matter just as much as those in Libya, Sudan and Syria.
R2P cannot be a doctrine of convenience depending on who is doing the killing.