Yemenis be­ing over­looked in the fray

What the UN should be do­ing is de­vel­op­ing a con­crete roadmap for a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion

The Mercury - - OPINION - Shan­non Ebrahim Ebrahim is In­de­pen­dent Media’s for­eign editor.

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.

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