Revised March 2019
By: Christopher Gawronski
This updated report was developed in an effort to highlight the need for the UN and international community to work toward peace in Yemen and end the ongoing conflict. It builds on the prior efforts of numerous other individuals and organizations who have documented and attempted to raise awareness of the human rights abuses occurring in Yemen every day.
The current conflict in Yemen started as civil unrest in 2011 resulting from disaffection with the Yemeni government. However, the unrest developed into a protracted armed conflict between the Houthi militia and the government after the Houthis stormed the capital in 2014. Since then, Yemeni citizens have been terrorized by the Houthi militia and have become the victims of a humanitarian crisis in their own country. The crisis is so severe that, by the end of 2017, more than 60% of Yemenis were food insecure and 16 million lacked safe drinking water. A 2018 report sponsored by UN Development Programme indicates that almost 75% of the population are surviving on the equivalent of less than $100 per month, including 21% who have no income and rely entirely on aid. Recently, Save the Children determined an additional one million children are at risk of famine, bringing the total now at risk to over five million.
To move forward, the international community needs to follow the clear framework established by the UN Security Council under its Article VII powers for interacting with the various parties involved. This framework has clearly identified the Houthi militia and its allies as the primary aggressors in the conflict. It further requires all members states, and the UN, to isolate the Houthis and assist the legitimate government in pursuing a negotiated, Yemeni-led political solution.
Therefore, the UN needs to support the government in working out a plan to end the bloody conflict based on the Security Council framework; a plan that addresses root causes rather than focusing on surface issues and impacts. Without an honest examination of the main causes, whether they be sectarian in nature, economic, or otherwise, there will be no peace and likely no end to the human rights violations resulting from the ongoing conflict.
Table of Contents
Yemen is a country in crisis. The unraveling of government services and a collapsing economy have resulted in shortages of food, water, sanitation and medicine such that a majority of Yemenis – tens of millions of people – now face destitution, famine, and cholera. Yemen’s crisis has been precipitated and prolonged by the Houthi militia, which staged a coup d’état in 2015 to satisfy its political ambitions. Yemen’s current unprecedented humanitarian crisis is a direct result of this coup and the subsequent war.
This report was developed in an effort to stress the need for the UN and international community to work toward peace in Yemen. It builds on the prior efforts of numerous other individuals and organizations who have documented human rights abuses and attempted to raise awareness of the humanitarian situation in Yemen. However, we need to do more than document human rights violations and alleviate the humanitarian impacts of war. The war must end.
Through a series of resolutions, the UN Security Council has created a legal framework that empowers the international community to take the necessary actions that will help end the conflict. The Council has called on member states to isolate the Houthi militia and assist the legitimate government in pursuing a negotiated, Yemeni-led political solution. Therefore, the UN needs to vigorously pursue all necessary actions to counter Houthi aggression and become a true partner with the Yemeni government in building a sustainable, political resolution to the conflict.
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) joins with others in calling attention to the plight of the many victims of the humanitarian crisis and human rights violations. Further, we call on the international community to utilize the power given to it by the Security Council to end the war. Only through peace can there be any hope of ending the suffering of Yemenis and achieving justice for the war’s many victims.
Yemen is a country of over 28 million people located at the southern extreme of Arabian Peninsula, at the mouth of the Red Sea, bordered by Oman and Saudi Arabia. The population is very young, with an average age of less than 20 and nearly half of its population under the age of 15. Yemen has an ancient history; it was a cradle of ancient civilizations and home to wealthy trading empires.
Unfortunately, in modern times Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries and is the poorest among Arab countries. Partly in response to the economic condition of the country, a peaceful uprising against the Yemeni government occurred in early 2011. Widespread protests occurred based on grievances related to corruption in the government of the then-long-serving president, the late Mr. Ali Abdullah Saleh. Unfortunately, the protests were used as an opportunity by the Houthi militia to advance its own interests.
The Houthi militia is an outgrowth of the Houthi tribe, which became organized as part of a revival of the historical Zaidi tradition of Islam in northern Yemen in the 1990s. Its initial leader, Hussein Al-Houthi, was a member of the Yemeni parliament at the time but gradually became increasingly antagonistic toward the government due to the heavy-handed political tactics of former Pres. Saleh. Al-Houthi left the country and spent time in Iran, eventually returning to organize his tribe to fight Saleh’s government. Al-Houthi initiated an anti-government insurgency leading to the group’s first armed conflict with government forces in 2004 in which he was killed.
Hussein’s brother Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi took over leadership, and the group, which had become a militia, subsequently engaged in five more armed conflicts with the Saleh government from 2005 until 2010 when a ceasefire was announced. When the 2011 protests erupted, the Houthi militia joined the protests and used them as an opportunity to resume its military activities.
As protests escalated, government resistance increased and Pres. Saleh responded to protesters with violence. However, international and domestic pressure eventually forced Saleh to participate in Saudi-led talks sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The aim of the talks was to resolve the political situation through regional efforts to avoid further escalation of violence and the potential for civil war. The GCC initiative was strongly supported by the UN Security Council, which adopted a resolution calling on all parties to sign and implement a settlement agreement as soon as possible.
Pres. Saleh resisted a negotiated resolution by backing out of several proposed deals during 2011, which led to more violence as opposition groups pressed for him to give up power. As dissatisfaction with Saleh’s refusal to accept an agreement grew, political opposition factions, which had joined together into the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), created their own transition council. Finally, in late 2011, Saleh signed a transition agreement, also accepted by the JMP, that called for a transfer of power and a national dialogue process. Following a presidential election in February 2012, Saleh officially relinquished his position on 25 February 2012 and former vice-president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi assumed the presidency. After 33 years in power, the Saleh era was over and the process of developing a long-term political transition could begin.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONFLICT
After the transfer of power, a National Dialogue Conference was organized as proposed in the transition agreement signed by Saleh and accepted by the JMP. The Conference, supported by the GCC and UN Security Council, took place from 2013–2014. The process formally included many opposition groups, including the Houthi militia, and resulted in an agreement to restructure the country into a federal system and decentralize power to new provincial governments.
Several groups, especially the Southern Movement and others from the former South Yemen region, rejected the agreement. They believed the former South Yemen governorates were not treated fairly. The southern groups announced their intent to continue to advocate their cause through political channels. The Houthis also refused to accept the final accord but did not engage constructively toward a political solution with other opposition groups. In fact, while participating in the Conference the Houthi militia continued to expand and solidify its military control over northern governorates.
After the Conference, the government began implementation of the transition while attempting to address the financial difficulties facing the country. When the Hadi government tried to implement financial reforms that involved reducing popular fuel subsidies, the Houthi militia seized on popular dissatisfaction and organized a large protest against the government in August 2014. Although acting under the guise of speaking for the public, many suspected the Houthi aim was political. Nevertheless, the government allowed the protest to occur peacefully. A month after initiating the protest, the Houthi militia made common cause with former Pres. Saleh and, supported by Yemeni soldiers loyal to Mr. Saleh, took control of Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, on 21 September 2014.
The Houthi militia forced concessions from Pres. Hadi that included the promise of appointing governmental advisors from the Houthis and Southern Movement. Because of the forcible action taken by the Houthi militia and its supporter Mr. Saleh, a Sanctions Committee of the Security Council slapped financial and travel sanctions on Mr. Saleh and two Houthi leaders. Nevertheless, the Houthi militia continued to make ever-increasing political demands on the government.
On 20 January 2015, the Houthi militia went further and stormed the presidential palace, effectively confining Pres. Hadi to his residence and putting additional pressure on Hadi’s government to implement political changes demanded by the Houthis. Rather than continue with coerced political reforms, the president and prime minister both resigned on 22 January. After other political factions, including the prominent Southern Movement, refused to cooperate with the Houthis or endorse their tactics, on 6 February 2015 the Houthi militia took the final step of its coup d’état by dissolving parliament and forming its own “Revolutionary Committee” to govern the country. This final action sparked protests in many parts of the country. The Houthi militia proceeded to take over all state institutions, including the central bank. It also began controlling the media by taking over the television station and newspapers in Sana’a, which it began to use to disseminate propaganda supporting its cause.
After the coup, Pres. Hadi managed to escape to Aden to reconstitute the legitimate government and oppose the Houthi take-over of the country. Pressing its military advantage, the Houthi militia moved south in a bid to take over the entire country by force. After taking control of major population centers, the Houthi militia arrived on the outskirts of Aden in mid-March 2015. After fighting broke out at the Aden airport, Pres. Hadi was forced to take refuge in Saudi Arabia and operate a government-in-exile.
Shortly before being forced to flee the country, Pres. Hadi appealed to the Security Council on 21 March 2015 for help by “all available means.” In response to this invitation for assistance, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE (Arab Coalition) formed to assist the Hadi government in re-establishing control of the country. Security Council resolutions have repeatedly condemned actions of the Houthi militia against the government and established an embargo against the Houthi-aligned forces (including the pro-Saleh forces).
Since 2015, the Yemeni government-aligned forces (including the Arab Coalition) have fought the Houthi-aligned forces to a relative stalemate. During this time, the UN has sponsored several attempts at peace negotiations between the government and the Houthi militia. The first talks in over two years were scheduled to take place in early September 2018 in Geneva. The representatives of the Yemeni government arrived in Geneva, but the Houthis never did. Initially, talks were postponed several days as the Houthi representatives demanded different transportation and conditions for their participation. After extensive efforts by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to arrange passage and special transportation for the Houthis, talks were called off because the Houthi representatives refused to leave Yemen.
Fortunately, after significant work by Mr. Griffiths, the Houthis did participate in the subsequent talks in Stockholm, Sweden in December 2018. These talks resulted in a short agreement between the parties on three matters: the city of Hodeidah and access to three ports along the Red Sea, a prisoner exchange, and the city of Ta’iz. The agreement resulted in a cautiously optimistic report from the Special Envoy to the Security Council, but he stressed that implementation of the agreement needed to be swift and many other critical matters remain unresolved.
Before Stockholm, the Houthis had used each peace-making effort as an opportunity to solidify military power, gain territory, and ultimately push out the government and take over the country by force. This latest effort has also suffered from Houthi intransigence as the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement was significantly delayed. Fortunately, in spite of the Houthi militia’s poor track record for cooperating with the international community, there has been some progress in withdrawing fighters from Hodeidah. This may be cause for cautious optimism.
IMPACTS OF THE CONFLICT
The unfortunate result of this protracted conflict has been a rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation in a country that was already the poorest in the Arab world. The humanitarian crisis is so severe that, by the end of 2017, more than 60% of Yemenis were food insecure and 16 million lacked safe drinking water. A 2018 report sponsored by UN Development Programme indicates that almost 75% of the population are surviving on the equivalent of less than $100 per month, including 21% who have no income and rely entirely on aid. Recently, Save the Children determined that an additional one million children are at risk of famine, bringing the total at risk to over five million. Even with numbers like these, it now seems that aid agencies have underestimated the likelihood of widespread famine due to an unexpectedly sharp decline in the local currency coupled with access restrictions on food and humanitarian supplies. A UN official admitted the possibility that “millions of people . . . may not survive.”
In addition to the lack of food and clean water, the re-emergence of previously-controlled diseases is wreaking havoc on the population as well as the health care system. An outbreak of cholera, described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “one of the world’s largest cholera outbreaks,” has infected over one million people since mid-2017. Diphtheria and other diseases were also on the rise through 2017.
A 2017 WHO report estimated that 62,000 people have been killed or injured in the Yemen conflict. The 2018 report of a UN Group of Experts documented a much more modest number of 16,706 but indicated that the number is likely much higher. Unfortunately, this report was hampered by an inability of the Group of Experts to access many areas under Houthi militia control. Extensive human rights abuses were also documented by the Group of Experts, including violations by all parties to the conflict. However, the lack of access resulted in a report focused more on violations caused by the government’s allies and did not provide a full picture of violations caused by the Houthis.
Fortunately, a few human rights organizations, including local groups on the ground in Yemen, have been able to report on human rights violations by the Houthi militia in areas of Houthi control. During and after its takeover of Sana’a, the Houthi militia has occupied schools, using them for barracks, and are suspected of targeting hospitals and killing civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, the Houthi militia makes extensive use of child soldiers, a source of great concern for the international community as demonstrated by the numerous recommendations made on the matter during Yemen’s UPR review in January 2019. They have also used land mines resulting in civilian casualties, including at least 18 dead and 39 injured in Ta’izz governorate between May 2015 and April 2016. The Rasd Coalition, working in a portion of the country, documented 679 civilian deaths and 847 injuries caused by the Houthi militia and allies, along with 1,193 cases of civilians subjected to human rights abuses primarily consisting of abduction, disappearance, and torture in just the first half of 2018.
The Houthi militia has a history of hiding its actions and silencing criticism of its activities. For example, one protest in Sana’a against the Houthi takeover of the government was suppressed by the militia with arrests of protesters after firing live rounds into the crowd. The Houthi militia has interfered with attempts by organizations to document the human rights situation in areas under its control. This even included refusing access to critical sites for the Group of Experts created by the UN Human Rights Council. According to the Group of Experts, the Houthi militia has been particularly harsh in punishing critics and controlling the press. The Houthis “have carried out intimidation, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture of vocal critics” and “have blocked news websites, censored television channels and banned newspapers from publication.” At the time of their report, the Group of Experts indicated at least 23 journalists were being detained by the Houthi militia, including several whose whereabouts were unknown. The Rasd Coalition documented 155 human rights violations by Houthis targeted against media workers and 49 against human rights activists in 2017. In the first half of 2018, the number stood at 52 for both groups combined.
The Houthi militia’s outright control of the media is a violation of press freedom and helps to hide the extent to which they perpetrate other human rights violations. This may have also contributed to the Group of Experts’ inability to fully examine Houthi activities and its resulting report focusing more on the actions of other parties.
Mistreatment of religious minorities is another example of systematic human rights violations by the Houthi militia. These are people who have done nothing against the Houthis but are targeted simply for their beliefs and the practice of their beliefs. According to the Group of Experts report, the Houthis have targeted the Baha’i in particular by labeling them as evil and against Islam, disbanding all Baha’i assemblies, detaining individuals on the basis of their faith (including some for over two years), and even sentencing one person to death after a closed hearing that the person was not allowed to attend.
The severity of the humanitarian crisis and the extent of the human rights violations require urgent action. Although the scale of the problem is massive, with many complicating factors, the next section will explain the legal framework that is already in place to guide the international community in responding to the crisis. Hopefully, examining and understanding that framework will help lead to more coordinated and focused action by the international community.
As previously stated, the key to ending the crisis in Yemen is to end the war. This requires recognizing and addressing the war’s main causes. These are the political divisions within Yemen that originally contributed to civic strife and the Houthi militia that escalated that strife into a civil war in pursuit of its own political ambitions. Therefore, peace efforts in Yemen must both address the pre-existing political divisions and actively isolate to the Houthi militia as the main perpetrators of armed conflict that prevent the political issues from being effectively addressed. Fortunately, the UN Security Council has understood the situation and empowered the international community to respond appropriately.
The Security Council framework includes three clear positions regarding important elements of the conflict. The positions are summarized in the following points and further described below.
- The ultimate outcome must be decided by Yemenis – and decision-making should be by peaceful means.
- There is one legitimate government of Yemen – the Houthi militia takeover of governmental institutions is illegitimate and internationally condemned.
- The Houthi militia is perpetuating a situation that constitutes a threat to international peace and security – the international community must not provide any financial or military support to the Houthi militia or its allies.
From its very first resolution on the matter, the Security Council has stressed the importance of a “Yemeni-led process of political transition.” This is a recognition of the requirement under the UN Charter that the United Nations may not intervene in the domestic affairs of a member country such as governance structure and political leadership decisions. However, a domestic process must not jeopardize international peace and security, otherwise the Security Council is empowered to intervene to the extent necessary to restore and protect international peace and security.
On Yemen, the Security Council has provided explicit support for regional efforts to aid the Yemeni government in developing a lasting political solution to the crisis. Following the transition of power from Pres. Saleh to Pres. Hadi in 2012, the Security Council supported the National Dialogue Conference as a means achieve “peaceful change and meaningful political, economic and social reform” that “meets the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Yemeni people.” At this early point, the Security Council also called upon all the parties in Yemen to “reject the use of violence to achieve political goals.”
Although the Security Council authorized intervention after determining the existence of a threat to international peace and security in 2014 (see below), it has continued to support the sovereign independence of Yemen and stress the need for a Yemeni-led political transition.
The Security Council has been unwavering in its attitude that the legitimate government of Yemen is one selected through a political process and not one imposed by force of arms. In this case, the government led by Pres. Hadi was established through a negotiated political process in the form of the National Dialogue Conference. Although several parties disagreed with the outcome of the Conference, they primarily voiced their objections through peaceful means. By contrast, the Houthi militia used its military force to progressively seize power and enforce on the country its own political interests to the exclusion of others. As a result, the Security Council has consistently refused to accept the Houthi militia as a legitimate authority within Yemen.
At the beginning of the political crisis, the Security Council recognized then-President Saleh as the legitimate head of government even while calling for him to negotiate a peaceful transition of power. The Council recognized a presidential decree issued in September 2011 as “designed to find a political agreement acceptable to all parties,” and noted a commitment by the president to sign a regionally-negotiated political transition agreement. The Council then called on the president to implement the commitment to “achieve a peaceful political transition of power.” Following the transition of power in 2012, the Security Council supported “the efforts of President . . . Hadi and the Government of National Unity to move the transition process forward.” After the outbreak of widespread armed conflict, the Council reaffirmed its support “for the legitimacy of the President of Yemen, Abdo Rabbo Hamsour Hadi” even after Pres. Hadi had been forced to flee the country and set up a government in exile. This shows how the Security Council has consistently recognized as legitimate the Yemeni governments that assume power through political processes.
On the other hand, the Security Council has refused to recognize as legitimate any party in Yemen that has established control through the use of force. This is in line with several other Security Council actions in recent decades, which appear to show a trend toward rejecting the legitimacy of a group that uses armed force to establish power, or one that attempts to stay in power contrary to the outcome of a political process. For example, a Council action in 1992 recognized an interim government constituted by a negotiated settlement as the legitimate Liberian government, rather than the group of opposition leaders who controlled most of the country but who had initiated an armed revolt rather than attempting a peaceful political process. In 1997, the Council condemned and rejected the legitimacy of a military junta that overthrew the democratically elected government of Sierra Leone and supported regional efforts to restore the elected government. In 2011, the Council rejected the legitimacy of a sitting president attempting to stay in power in Côte d’Ivoire following a questionable election process by noting recognition of the opponent candidate as the winner by regional groups and “the rest of the international community.” In each of these cases, the Security Council also commended the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional organization, to develop negotiated political solutions to these crises.
Yemen appears to be another example of this trend. The Security Council deplored the Houthi militia’s takeover of government institutions by military force and demanded the Houthis release Yemeni government officials, including Pres. Hadi and his ministers. After the Houthis refused to stand down, the Security Council confirmed its characterization of the Houthi takeover as illegitimate when it demanded the Houthi militia withdraw from the capital and “cease all actions that are exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen.” In addition, even though Hadi’s government had lost control of much of the country’s territory by early 2015, the Security Council still recognized Hadi’s request for assistance as coming from the “President of Yemen.” In addition, the Council has continuously supported the efforts of the GCC, a regional organization, to negotiate a peaceful political solution to the crisis.
As a result, the government currently headed by Pres. Hadi, as the only governmental authority within Yemen established through a political process, is the government recognized as legitimate by the international community and therefore supported by the Security Council. This is not to say that the government cannot change. Governments are expected to change according to a country’s internal constitutional and political processes, with the UN and international community subsequently recognizing such changes. However, the Security Council’s trend toward rejecting governments established by force should highlight, especially for the various political groups that do not support the government of Pres. Hadi, the importance of pressing for change through political rather than military means.
Threat to International Peace and Security
The Security Council’s rejection of the legitimacy of Houthi authority is a result of its gradual determination that the Houthi militia and its allies have been the creators and perpetuators of a situation that threatens international peace and security. Although there had been sporadic fighting involving various groups in Yemen since the 2011 transition of power, the country remained relatively stable. During the years leading up to and including the National Dialogue Conference, the UN Security Council monitored the Yemen situation but limited itself to statements of encouragement for the ongoing political processes and condemnations of the occasional bouts of armed fighting between groups.
However, after conclusion of the Dialogue process in early 2014, the intensity of fighting escalated dramatically. This prompted the Security Council to take the major step in Resolution 2140 of determining, according to its Article VII powers under the UN Charter, that the situation in Yemen constituted a threat to international peace and security in February 2014. In general, this determination opens the door to the legal use of coercive measures, including armed force, by the international community in accordance with the directives of the Security Council.
At first, the Security Council was cautious in assigning responsibility for the security situation to any particular group. Resolution 2140 established a travel ban and freeze on financial assets to be applied to designated individuals and entities. However, the Council did not make specific designations directly. Rather, the Council created a Sanctions Committee to review information and designate any individual or entity it found to be “engaging in or providing support for acts that threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen.”
Up to this point, the Security Council had only called out Al-Qaida as a perpetrator of violence; not surprising since Al-Qaida has been targeted by the Council for a number of years and was already the subject of a separate sanctions regime. Instead, the Council had always called on all groups generally to avoid violence and engage in a peaceful political process. This changed later in 2014, as the Houthis began taking control of areas around the capital city of Sana’a, when the Council expressed its concern about continuing fighting and called out the Houthi militia for the first time. In a presidential statement in August 2014, the Council expressed “grave concern about the deterioration of the security situation in Yemen in light of the action taken by the Houthis…and those who support them, to undermine the political transition and the security of Yemen.” The statement identified a list of specific actions of the Houthi militia, including instituting checkpoints around Sana’a, which it characterized as “supplant[ing] the authority of the state.” The statement also specifically condemned “the actions of Houthi forces…who overran Amran including the Yemeni Army Brigade headquarters….”
The Security Council’s caution in blaming certain parties ended when the Houthi militia took control of the capital in September. At that point, the Sanctions Committee took action based on the designation criteria in Resolution 2140 and determined that two Houthi leaders and the Houthi-allied former president Saleh were “engaging in or providing support for acts that threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen.” As a result, these men became the first individuals subjected to international sanctions by the Committee on 7 November 2014.
When the Houthi militia dissolved parliament and took over state institutions and the media in February 2015, the Security Council deplored the Houthi actions. It called on all parties, including the Houthi militia, to follow the negotiated transition process, and it demanded the Houthis in particular “refrain from further unilateral actions that could undermine the political transition and the security of Yemen.” However, the Houthi militia ignored the Security Council directives and proceeded with a military campaign to completely take over the country.
In March, the Houthi militia engaged government forces in Aden, the temporary capital where Pres. Hadi had re-established the government. This prompted an appeal to the Security Council from Pres. Hadi seeking international assistance. The Security Council responded by reiterating its condemnation of Houthi actions and adding an international arms embargo against the sanctioned Houthi leaders and anyone acting for their benefit. In addition, the Council specifically added another Houthi leader plus former president Saleh’s son to the sanction list.
Through this series of actions, the Security Council and its Sanctions Committee have clearly identified the Houthi militia as the primary actor perpetuating war and instability in Yemen. No other group in Yemen has been condemned for so many specific acts and its leaders and allies targeted with international sanctions.
In summary, the international legal framework established by the UN Security Council requires:
- Yemenis to decide ultimate outcome,
- Support of the legitimate government in resolving the conflict, and
- Cutting off all resources to the Houthi militia and its allies.
Because the Security Council has acted under its Chapter VII powers, the international community is both obligated and empowered to take any actions in line with this framework to bring the conflict to an end.
As an international community, it is our responsibility to do more in Yemen than just document human rights violations and send aid to alleviate the humanitarian impacts of war. We need to end the war.
The key to moving forward in ending the war is to understand and address its primary causes. Based on the information presented in the preceding sections, it is evident that there were two main causes that led to the conflict. One cause was the political dissatisfaction that gave rise to the 2011 protests. The other was the military takeover of the government, and then the country, by the Houthi militia. The international community can address these causes by acting in accord with the clear framework established by the UN Security Council.
First, to address the issue of political dissatisfaction, the framework directs the international community to ensure any process is Yemeni-led and supports the efforts of the Yemeni government. A Yemeni-led process will be more likely to lead to lasting agreement. Political solutions imposed on a country from outside are almost certainly destined for failure.
In this regard, the regional members of the international community played a role early on in helping Yemenis to develop their own solution to the issue of political dissatisfaction. The GCC in particular was at the forefront of trying to create an environment where various parties within Yemen can participate in restructuring its political process and governance arrangements. The GCC helped Yemenis achieve the transfer of power from Saleh to Hadi and supported the efforts of the National Dialogue Conference, which was part of the power transition agreed by the parties.
Since the onset of all-out civil war, the UN has been involved in several efforts involving the use of “good offices,” shuttle diplomacy, and sponsorship of talks in neutral venues organized by a special envoy from the UN Secretary-General. As previously mentioned, a series of talks were held from 2015–2016, and another set of talks was unsuccessfully attempted in 2018. Since the UN only served as a convener and facilitator, these efforts also satisfied the requirement to ensure any solution is developed and led by Yemenis.
As part of being Yemeni-led, the international community must support the Yemeni government in developing and implementing the political process. Here, the Security Council is deferring to the sovereignty and independence of Yemen. Since the current government is the only one that has, at some time, held legitimacy both internally and externally, the international community would be interfering in Yemen’s internal affairs if it chose to recognize a different government.
Here again, efforts of the international community generally followed the framework, at least initially. Early on, GCC and UN efforts both provided support to the Yemeni government in developing processes and negotiating difficult issues with other parties within Yemen. Unfortunately, some later international actions strayed from the framework with the result of undermining the Yemeni government’s efforts to craft a peaceful political resolution.
The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) initially pointed to the Security Council direction and helped highlight the responsibility of the Houthi militia. In the two years after the Sanctions Committee designation in November 2014, the HRC voted to continue providing technical assistance to Yemen and noted in its resolutions how Security Council Resolution 2216 “contains specific concerns and places particular demands on…Houthi militias….” This was a helpful reinforcement of the Security Council framework. Unfortunately, HRC resolutions in 2017 and 2018 dropped this language and no longer refer to the Houthis by name.
In 2015, the Government of Yemen established a National Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights abuses. This commission was to be supported with technical assistance from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the request of the HRC. The National Commission faced a difficult task of documenting and reporting human rights violations in the midst of an armed conflict, including those caused by the parties fighting the government. Unsurprisingly, the Houthi militia refused to cooperate. After starting its work, statements from the High Commissioner’s office indicated a lack of confidence in the Commission. In addition, there seemed to be some dispute between the National Commission and the High Commissioner’s office as to the proper role of the latter in providing assistance. Regardless of any shortcomings of the Commission, this pronouncement provided encouragement for the Houthis to continue refusing to cooperate with the Commission’s work, thus undermining the government’s efforts.
Subsequently, the High Commissioner’s office conveyed the report of a Group of Experts to the HRC in September 2018. This report provided an assessment of the human rights situation in Yemen separate from the National Commission. The Group of Experts mentioned in its report the significant limitation it had in terms of time to conduct its work (one year) and lack of access to necessary people, locations and information. Nevertheless, the report documented numerous human rights violations committed by all parties to the conflict.
Unfortunately, the report was unbalanced. The Group of Experts devoted significant space to detailing, for example, access barriers for humanitarian relief created by the government and its allies, while providing no such detail for the Houthi militia even though it also prevented access for humanitarian relief. Similar detail was provided in terms of listing individual actions of government allies that resulted in civilian casualties, while civilian deaths at the hands of the Houthi militia tended to be grouped by category or general location. Interestingly, the Group of Experts noted its inability to access key locations and facilities under Houthi control, especially detention facilities, where human rights violations are highly likely to occur. Therefore, the reported violations are likely to significantly underreport those committed by the Houthi militia. This lack of data from Houthi facilities and the disparity in presenting the findings gave the report an apparent bias in favor of the Houthis.
It should be stressed that all human rights violations should be documented and appropriately reported regardless of the perpetrator. A government should be subjected to the same scrutiny as a non-state actor such as a rebel militia. However, fair and time-sensitive reporting of results is critical. Where reporting brings with it a high risk of emboldening the perpetrator of an armed conflict to continue the conflict, then the reporting becomes counter-productive by perpetuating the very situation that causes the violations. Such was likely the case here. Because the Group of Experts report failed to thoroughly examine the terrorist acts and human rights record of the Houthi militia and released its draft report only one week before scheduled peace talks in Geneva, the report emboldened the Houthis to refuse to participate in the September 2018 talks.
The manner in which the UN has engaged with the Houthi militia also presents concerns. Al-Qaida as a group has been named in Security Council resolutions on Yemen, and is the subject of extensive international sanctions, but it has not been brought into negotiations, nor has it been visited by UN representatives. The Houthi militia is in the same position of being named in Security Council resolutions on Yemen, plus it apparently has perpetrated even more human rights violations in Yemen than Al-Qaida. Yet, the Houthis are directly engaged in international talks and visited by UN officials.
Although it is crucial to find a peaceful end to the conflict in Yemen as soon as possible, it is hard to avoid the impression that these types of actions lend an appearance of international legitimacy to the Houthi militia. It is important to consider the possibility that approaches that lend legitimacy to the Houthi militia and its cause might be counter-productive. Perhaps giving closer attention to the issue of the military takeover of Yemen, discussed below, would achieve the desired results while not lending an air of legitimacy to the group that perpetrated the takeover.
The second issue to address is the military takeover of Yemen and the ongoing threat to international peace and security it entails. Here, the Security Council framework directs the international community to isolate the Houthi militia by cutting off its access to money and weapons and restricting the ability of its top leaders to leave the country. These directives reflect the determination by the Security Council and its Sanctions Committee that the Houthi militia is perpetuating war and instability in Yemen. No other group has been condemned for so many specific acts or its leaders and allies targeted with international sanctions, not even Al-Qaida, which is regularly mentioned in Security Council resolutions on Yemen.
The Houthi militia cannot maintain its control of territory and government institutions without outside military assistance. Therefore, starving that group of its means to fight will ultimately force it to turn to other – less violent – means of addressing its grievances with the government. Iran’s ongoing support of the Houthi militia with military supplies is, therefore, particularly concerning. Aside from being a clear contravention of the Security Council-declared arms embargo, this continuing supply of arms allows the Houthis to continue fighting the government and flouting Security Council directives. Member states, especially those who are members of the HRC, need to engage with Iran in a positive way to encourage that country to end its support of the Houthis and thereby bring an end to the war that is causing such destruction, death, and violation of human rights.
The long and short of the Yemen situation is this: All UN and international actions should be measured against whether they help end the conflict. Ending the conflict is the only way to stop the resulting human rights violations and end the humanitarian crisis.
The UN must return to the framework established by the Security Council resolutions to work toward peace and support the government of Yemen in creating a dialogue that addresses the root causes of this conflict. Without addressing the main causes of the current situation, such as was attempted during the National Dialogue, there will ultimately be no peace and likely no end to the human rights violations resulting from the ongoing conflict.
It should be noted that properly conducted investigation and documentation of human rights violations are critical to ensure justice for victims in any conflict. The Yemen conflict is no exception, and the international community has an important role to play in ensuring the credible investigation of such violations. However, it is important to keep the conduct and reporting of human rights violations in context with the ultimate goal of international involvement in the Yemen situation: ending the conflict. Documenting and reporting of human rights violations will not, in itself, end the conflict that is the cause of the violations. Worse yet, reporting that does not give due regard to political or diplomatic efforts may antagonize or embolden the parties and exacerbate the conflict, thus having the counter-productive result of leading to yet more human rights violations. The international community must be cautious to avoid such unintended results as it seeks to uncover human rights violations in this and other conflicts.
Ultimately it is up to Yemenis to decide on the best resolution for their country. However, it is important for the international community to take action against parties who add obstacles to the situation and thwart the directives of the Security Council. The UN and international community should put forward their utmost effort to support the Yemeni government and create an environment that is truly productive for working toward peace and achieving justice for the people of Yemen.
النص بالعربية: هنا
GICJ's Joint Oral Statements on Yemen at the UN Human Rights Council
39th Session Human Rights Council
General Debate under Item: 3
14 September 2018
Delivered by: Mr. Mutua K. Kobia
The humanitarian situation and human rights violations in Yemen was addressed under Agenda Item 3: General Debate.
38th Session Human Rights council
General Debate under Item: 3
25 June 2018
Delivered by: Ms. Sheefa Afath Shaik
The humanitarian situation and human rights violations in Yemen was addressed under Agenda Item 3: General Debate.
General Debate under Item: 10
5 July 2018
Delivered by: Ms. Sheefa Afath Shaik
Humanitarian assistance and aid for the Yemeni people is a deep concern for GICJ regarding the devastating humanitarian crisis in Yemen and was thus raised during the general debate under agenda Item 10
GICJ's co-sponsored side-event on Yemen at the UN Human Rights Council
Yemen: A Human Catastrophe
Yemen: Nothing is Safe