The World's Worst Humanitarian Crisis: War in Yemen
Author: Danielle Castano
October 26, 2023
The ongoing civil war in Yemen stands as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Thousands of people have died, millions grapple with food insecurity, and a substantial portion of the population faces internal displacement or has sought refuge in neighboring countries. The civil war broke out in 2014 when Houthi insurgents seized control of Yemen’s capital, Sana. President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was placed on house arrest, ultimately resulting in his resignation and the subsequent takeover of the government by the Houthis (Montgomery, 2022). President Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, where he requested aid in reinstating his presidency. As a result, a coalition was formed tasked with ousting the Houthis from power. The coalition originally involved nine states: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan, and Qatar. However, since the civil war began, several states have left the coalition with Saudi Arabia and UAE leading the operation (Qureshi, 2020). In 2017, Qatar was expelled from the coalition and the UAE withdrew most of its forces in 2019 (Loft, 2023). The rest of this article will refer to the coalition as the “Saudi-led coalition.”
The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, are a Zaydi Shiite movement that emerged in northern Yemen in the 1980s. Their primary focus has been to challengeYemen’s Sunni-majority government since the early 2000s. Over time, tensions between the Houthis and the Yemeni government have steadily escalated, leading to armed conflict in 2004. During this time, former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh began arresting hundreds of Houthis, while fighting between the two groups further intensified after the Arab Spring (Montgomery, 2022). Furthermore, Iran is suspected of supplying the Houthis with weapons and military support (Robinson, 2023). The various countries involved only complicate the conflict in Yemen, which makes peace negotiations and a ceasefire difficult to implement.
As the conflict in Yemen spans nearly a decade, this section will focus on recent developments. These include the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, current endeavors to facilitate peace negotiations between all parties involved, and the concerning upsurge in terrorist attacks within Yemen. Several events have escalated the conflict in Yemen. The civil war has turned into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Furthermore, suspicions of Iran supplying the Houthis with weapons and military support have added a layer of complexity to the Yemen conflict (Robinson, 2023). Tensions between the two countries have only increased since the conflict began. For example, a ballistic missile was fired at King Khalid Airport in Riyadh in 2017. The missile was intercepted and the Houthis claimed responsibility for the act. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir called it an act of war by Iran (Wilson Center, 2022). The escalation of attacks and political instability have created another complication, which is the rise of terrorism.
The growing number of terrorist attacks during the conflict is another point of concern.
While terrorist organizations have been an issue since before the civil war, it has only intensified due to the lack of government stability. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been operating in Yemen since the 1990’s. Since the conflict began, AQAP started expanding their control and seized several cities. Additionally, the Islamic State (ISIS) began operating in Yemen in 2015, however, their numbers are relatively low compared to AQAP (Robinson, 2023). Unfortunately, the persistent government instability continues to exacerbate the suffering endured by the Yemeni people.
There have been several attempts in brokering peace agreements through the UN. In April 2022, the UN special envoy for Yemen announced that they had negotiated a two month truce agreement between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition (Human Rights Watch, 2023). While the truce aimed to establish a ceasefire for most military operations in Yemen, it struggled to prevent ongoing abuses and violations. Nevertheless, the truce did yield some positive outcomes, including a reduction in civilian casualties, an increase in the flow of essential goods, and improved freedom of movement (U.S. Department of State, 2023). The complexity of the conflict, involving multiple parties with differing interests, has made peace negotiations challenging, as they would require unanimous agreement from all parties. Notably, earlier this year, a significant development occurred when Iran and Saudi Arabia brokered an agreement to normalize their diplomatic ties (Cafiero, 2023). While this does not provide a complete solution to the conflict, it represents a crucial step towards achieving lasting peace in Yemen.
Human Rights Violations
Several human rights violations and abuses have been committed by all parties involved since the conflict began. According to the United Nations, it is currently one of the worst humanitarian crises with the most concerning violations being the man-made food crisis, attack on women's rights, and unlawful attacks on civilians (UNHCR, 2023). Before the conflict, Yemen was already one of the poorest countries in the region, heavily reliant on humanitarian assistance. However, when the conflict erupted, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a naval and aerial blockade on Yemen in an effort to prevent weapons from reaching the Houthis, as noted by Ward in 2021. Yemen heavily depends on imports for essential goods, and this blockade has resulted in severe food shortages, restricted access to medicine, and limited fuel supplies. These dire conditions have pushed the country to the brink of famine, with over half of the Yemeni population struggling to reliably feed themselves (Ward, 2021). Adding to the crisis, the conflict in Ukraine has further worsened food security in Yemen. Both Russia and Ukraine were significant exporters of agricultural products to Yemen prior to the outbreak of war (Human Rights Watch, 2023). As a result, children continue to bear the brunt of acute malnutrition, making them the most vulnerable group affected by this dire situation.
Under Houthi control, women are required to be accompanied by a male relative (mahram). This restriction of movement prevents women from working, even female humanitarian workers, which has further impeded access to aid for Yemeni women and girls (Human Rights Watch, 2023). Furthermore, there are reports of recruitment of child soldiers. Close to 3,500 children have been verified as recruited as soldiers in Yemen since the beginning of the conflict (United Nations, 2022). Furthermore, both Houthi forces and the Saudi-led coalition conducted unlawful attacks on civilians, often targeting hospitals, schools, residential buildings, and other public infrastructure buildings. Houthi missile target choices are becoming bolder and increasingly common. Over the last several years, they have attempted to attack capital cities within Saudi Arabia and the UAE (Wilson Center, 2022). The UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have raised concerns over the human rights violations committed from all parties involved in Yemen, specifically over the indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes against civilians.
The multiple parties involved adds a layer of complexity to the conflict, which only makes finding resolutions even more difficult. Therefore, brokering peace negotiations between said parties should be one of the highest priorities. The recent conciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia signals progress towards ending the war. Outside forces reconciling eases tensions and allows for the main parties involved (the Yemeni government and the Houthis) to focus on finding resolutions between themselves. Furthermore, the ceasefire between Iran and Saudi Arabia has led to a ceasefire in some areas of Yemen.
The UN and other NGOs have raised concerns over the human rights violations in Yemen, there should be increased pressure placed on countries that are currently selling arms to all parties involved in the conflict. Currently, the United Kingdom and the United States are selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. An Oxfam report found that the Saudi-led coalition is using cluster munitions, which are weapons banned by international convention and customary law (Butcher, 2023). These weapons are further contributing to the suffering of the Yemeni people. Under the current administration, the US government agreed to only sell defensive weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as they are needed to defend themselves from Iran. While reducing arms sales does not end the conflict, it may result in a reduction in civilian casualties.
The abuses and violations suffered by the Yemeni people continue without any accountability for those held responsible. The civil war is approaching a decade and stands as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Millions are facing severe food insecurity, thousands have died, and a significant portion of the population have been displaced internally or have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Until a resolution is negotiated, women and children continue to carry the brunt of abuses. The recent reconciliation of external parties involved allows for space for the Yemeni government and the Houthis to find a resolution. While this does not provide a complete solution to the conflict, it represents a crucial step towards achieving lasting peace in Yemen.
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