What Is Going On In Yemen: Understanding The Worst Humanitarian Crisis Of Our Time & What We Can Do About It

Content warning: some of the information below is upsetting, and includes references to the deaths of children.

The complicated conflict in Yemen has been going on for years, and in my opinion doesn’t receive as much (understandable) press coverage as it should. Most ordinary individuals have no clue what’s really happening, I didn’t even have a full grasp until I properly researched this post. I put this post together both because Yemen is a country that’s close to my heart (my mum’s side of the family is originally from there) and because I think many people don’t understand what’s actually going on, or how western countries are playing a part in it. I hope this will help you understand the situation a little more.

Yemen facts:

What’s going on:

sources: Amnesty, Al Jazeera, Reuters

The conflict in Yemen rages between Houthi rebels, a Yemeni armed group which belongs to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaydism and opposes the current President of Yemen (Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi), and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that is allied with the President. The coalition members include the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Senegal and Sudan, while the USA, UK and France have been providing key intelligence, logistical support and weapons. Several of these countries have sent troops to fight on the ground in Yemen, while others have carried out air attacks. The coalition is both allied with anti-Houthi armed groups operating on the ground in Yemen, and supported by army units loyal to President Hadi and a variety of different factions. The Houthi rebels are supported by certain army units and armed groups loyal to former late President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Additionally Iran has denied arming the Houthi rebels, but the US military said it has intercepted arms shipments from Iran to Yemen. Iranian officials have also suggested they may send military advisors to support the Houthis.

These two factions have battled on and off since 2004, however most of the fighting was confined to the Houthis’ stronghold, northern Yemen’s impoverished Saada province. Yemen was ruled for a millennium by Zaydi Shia imams until 1962, and the Houthis were founded as a Zaydi Shia revivalist movement. However, the Houthis have not called for restoring the imamate in Yemen, and religious grievances haven’t been a major factor in the war. The Houthis’ demands have been mainly economic and political.

In 2013 Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference was launched, tasked with writing a new constitution and creating a federal political system after an uprising in 2011 that saw former president Ali Abdullah Saleh overthrown by protests. The Houthis demanded a more representative form of government, and eventually withdrew from the process because it left Yemen’s transitional government in place. Further complicating matters was the fact that two Houthi representatives were assassinated during the conference.

Following this the government’s decision to lift fuel subsidies in July 2014 angered the Yemeni public and sparked massive street protests by Houthi supporters and others, who demanded that the government step down. The Houthis proceeded to take over Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, that September, forcing the government to flee, before pushing southwards towards the country’s second-biggest city, Aden. In response to these advances, the coalition of Arab states launched a military campaign in 2015 to defeat the Houthis and restore Yemen’s government. Saudi Arabia launched air strikes in March 2015, launching a full armed conflict. In the three years since the conflict has showed no sign of slowing down, and horrific human rights abuses and war crimes have been committed by both sides, mainly hurting innocent civilians who are trapped in the middle. Thousands have been killed and injured, a humanitarian crisis has spiralled, and peace negotiations have failed to make progress.

The events of this war are seen as part of the ‘cold war’ between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia shares a long, porous border with Yemen, and it fears what it sees as Iranian expansion through its support for Shia armed groups. However Yemen’s war is also more complex than just a Saudi-Iranian or Sunni-Shia conflict.

The timeline

  • 2011 – Hundreds killed in crackdown on mass protests calling for fall of President Saleh, an end to corruption and repression and accountability for human rights violations. President Saleh is forced to resign and sign a power-transfer deal
  • 2012 – Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi is elected as president, initiating a two-year transitional period. However, government forces continue to commit human rights violations, including unlawful killings and enforced disappearances, against supporters of secession in the south and a conflict with the Houthi armed group in the north is renewed
  • 2014 – Houthis call for mass protests after government slashes fuel subsidies. The group advances south and seizes Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. By February 2015 the group dissolves parliament and announces plans for a transitional government.
  • 2015 – Saudi Arabia launches airstrikes in Yemen, and a full conflict begins

Who is being hurt

Civilians bear the brunt of the violence in Yemen. As well as causing the deaths and injuries of thousands, the conflict has exacerbated an already severe humanitarian crisis. This crisis is man-made (as opposed to being caused by something like drought or natural disaster), with the war worsening the situation, and all sides impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid.  As reported by Al Jazeera, internally displaced Yemenis often must cope with a lack of food and inadequate shelter. Many Yemenis who have not fled are also suffering, especially those in need of healthcare.

At least 10,000 Yemenis had been killed by the fighting (although the death toll hasn’t been updated in a long time, so is likely to be much higher), with more than 40,000 casualties overall. Getting accurate information on the death toll is difficult, but Save The Children estimated at least 50,000 children died in 2017, an average of 130 every day. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has estimated that Saudi-led coalition air attacks caused almost two-thirds of reported civilian deaths, while the Houthis have been accused of causing mass civilian casualties due to their siege of Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city.

Currently around 22.2 million Yemenis rely on humanitarian assistance in order to survive, and there are more than one million suspected cases of cholera. Aid organisations have highlighted the difficulties faced when trying to help Yemenis in need of food, medicine, and other essentials. The Houthi siege of Taiz has prevented critical medical supplies from arriving, whilst Saudi Arabia has pressured aid groups to leave rebel-controlled areas of Yemen, and bombing has hit multiple hospitals throughout the fighting.

At the same time, restricted movement of goods has caused severe problems. In order to deny supplies to the Houthi forces, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition imposed a partial aerial and naval blockade. Due to this the coalition has tight restrictions on aid and commercial imports of essential goods, including food, medicine and fuel. Humanitarian workers also report that the Houthis have excessively restricted the movement of goods and staff, forcing some of their aid programmes to close.

Human Rights abuses on both sides

Amnesty International has gathered evidence revealing that all parties in the conflict have committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including war crimes.

They have documented 36 air strikes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that appear to have violated international humanitarian law (the rules that apply during a conflict which are sometimes known as the “laws of war”) resulting in 513 civilian deaths, including at least 157 children, and 379 civilian injuries. These have included attacks that appear to have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects such as hospitals, schools, markets and mosques. Attacks like these are considered to be war crimes.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has also used cluster munitions, which are deadly explosive weapons banned under international law. When launched cluster bombs release dozens, sometimes hundreds, of smaller bombs, which often lie unexploded and can cause horrific injuries long after the initial attack. Amnesty International has documented the coalition’s use of at least four different types of cluster munitions, including US, UK and Brazilian-manufactured models. Both sides also have used imprecise weapons, such as artillery, mortar fire or grad rockets, on a daily basis in heavily populated residential areas, causing heavy civilian casualties. Amnesty International has also investigated 30 ground attacks, by both pro and anti-Houthi forces, which did not distinguish between combatants and civilians, and killed at least 68 civilians, most of whom were women and children.

When it comes to freedom of speech and movement the Houthis, supported by state security forces, have carried out a string of arrests of its critics, including human rights defenders, journalists, and academics; seizing people at gunpoint and subjecting some to enforced disappearance as part of a campaign to quash dissent. Meanwhile the coalition have also carried out a campaign of intimidation and harassment against hospital staff in Taiz, and are endangering civilians by stationing fighters and military positions near medical facilities. The coalition also controls Yemen’s airspace; enforcing an almost complete media blackout by preventing reporters and human-rights researchers from taking U.N. relief flights into Houthi-controlled areas for most of the last two years.

Beyond this both sides have also been known to recruit and deploy child soldiers, and the conflict has exacerbated existing oppression of women and girls, causing a rise in issues such as child marriage. The meagre social and legal protections that were once in place have now broken down, leaving women and girls more at risk of sexual violence, genital mutilation, forced marriage and other abuses, and children at risk of being recruited to fight.

In September 2015 the Yemeni government established the National Commission to Investigate Alleged Violations of Human Rights, however this has failed to conduct prompt, impartial and effective investigations. Simultaneously the Saudi Arabia-led coalition investigative mechanism (known as JIAT) has also not been impartial, and hasn’t carried out credible work. JIAT has supported Saudi Arabia’s version of events in nearly every case it has investigated; according to Human Rights Watch, out of 75 incidents of reported civilian casualties, JIAT has admitted Saudi rules of engagement may have been broken in two cases only.

In its mid-term report, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen was concerned that members of the coalition were deliberately avoiding accountability.

On the brink of famine

2018 saw a 25% increase in levels of severe hunger in Yemen, with an estimated 8.4 million people (more than the entire population of Switzerland) on the verge of starvation. UNICEF has reported that more than 11 million children, or about 80 percent of the country’s population under the age of 18, were facing the threat of food shortages, disease, displacement and acute lack of access to basic social services. Many have to skip meals and beg on the streets, and 22 million Yemenis  are dependent on aid. The country is on the brink of famine, but the hunger is entirely man made. No drought or weather issues have caused it, instead hunger has been weaponised. Neither side systematically withholds food from civilians. Instead, the conflict makes it impossible for people to earn the money they need buy food, exploiting a loophole in international law. Sufficient food does arrive in Yemeni ports, but endemic unemployment means that 2/3 of the population struggle to buy this food for their families.

Simultaneously a Saudi Arabia-led offensive on the main port city of Hodeida, which acts as a lifeline for millions and was responsible for delivering 70% of Yemen’s imports before 2015, makes food impossible to afford. Hodeida is held by the Houthi rebels, and a blockade of the area is intermittently enforced by Saudi Arabia, with all shipments of food and other imported goods subject to U.N. or coalition approval and inspections, driving up prices. Saudi-led aerial bombing has also destroyed infrastructure and businesses, decimating the economy inside rebel-held areas.

The Saudis have ignored pleas from every humanitarian organisation operating in Yemen to halt their offensive in Hodeida, despite the fact that that disrupting the port’s operations creates food-price increases and famine in areas under Houthi control. Human-rights groups have questioned the legality of the Hodeida offensive, as well as the Saudi-led blockade and aerial bombing campaign, on the grounds that they have created widespread hunger. As Alex de Waal, author of the book “Mass Starvation,” which analyses recent man-made famines, expressed to the New Yorker:

“The focus on food supplies over all and humanitarian action is actually missing the bigger point… It’s an economic war with famine as a consequence.”

As of September 13th UN peace talks have collapsed and fighting has resumed in Hodeida. Currently hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance, as the 300,000 people in the city live terrified of airstrikes and bombings, and the Saudi-led offensive threatens the Red Sea mill, which currently holds enough food inside to feed 3.5 million people for a month. If this mill is damaged or disrupted, the human cost will be impossible to imagine.

Children are dying

One of the most recent developments to make headlines was the bombing of a school bus that was on a field trip on August 9th.

The bus had taken a stop on its journey for snacks and juice in the village of Dahyan, northern Yemen, when an airstrike by the Saudi coalition hit nearby. 54 people were killed, 44 of them children, and many more were wounded. Although children have been the primary victims of the war, this attack was particularly shocking for many. The schoolboys were aged between 6 and 16, the field trip was to visit a historic mosque in the provincial capital of Saada, and was supposed to be a treat. As one eyewitness told The New York Times:

‘It was the first time in my life that I have seen such a horrific massacre’

A red cross nurse who treated the children also wrote about her experience for the Guardian:

‘I’d like to say this was the first time I’ve treated so many civilians after an attack, but it’s not. I’ve been here too many times before, both in Yemen and in Mosul, Iraq.

What happened last week in Saada, however, was unprecedented for me in that nearly all the victims were children…

Physically, the children will recover. But I worry for their mental state. Many were in shock; they had no idea what had just happened to them. One minute they were on a bus, the next they were in a hospital.

The health system in Yemen is on the brink of collapse and Saada is a very poor area. There is little by way of psychological support. This attack could affect the children long after their wounds have healed.’

Following the bus strike, JIAT described it as a ‘legitimate military action’ that targeted ‘Houthi leaders who were responsible for recruiting and training young children’. While the schoolboys trip would have involved a cemetery where rebels were buried, survivors told journalists that was because it was one of last green spaces left in the region, as most have been destroyed by the fighting.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS have spread as a result of the chaos, backed by the West

Yemen has been a base for one of the most dangerous branches of al-Qaeda for a long time. In the aftermath of the chaos of 2011 they were able to expand and take control of territory in southern Yemen. In 2015, al-Qaeda took over Mukalla, a provincial capital and the fifth-largest city in Yemen, although they were driven from the city in 2016. At the same time ISIS announced the formation of a state in Yemen in December 2014, and in March 2015 its first attack in Yemen killed more than 140 people. Since losing ground in Iraq and Syria, ISIS advised members to move to Yemen in 2018, using the chaos as an opportunity to create a safe base, increase its presence in the country and re-energise their affiliates to create new extremist hotspots in the area.

In August 2018 it was also revealed by The Associated Press that the Saudi-led coalition (which the US and the UK are part of) cut secret deals with al-Qaeda fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns, letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and looted cash, and recruiting hundreds more to join the coalition itself. This is because curbing Iranian expansion is seen as more important than either battling al-Qaeda or stabilising Yemen, and because al-Qaeda militants or recent members are considered exceptional fighters and therefore good recruits. One Yemeni commander who was put on the US terrorism list for al-Qaeda ties last year receives money from the UAE to run his militia, whilst another commander who has a known al-Qaeda figure as his closest aide was recently given $12 million for his fighting force.

Essentially, the west claims to be fighting al-Qaeda, whilst simultaneously directly supporting them, and then having the audacity to blame refugees for the growth of these groups. At the same time, the chaos caused by continual bombing from the coalition, supported by the west, has also created opportunities for ISIS to expand into regions of Yemen.

Arms fuelling the crisis

But this isn’t the only way the west is involved. A few days after the bus bombing in August, local security officials in the area showed The New York Times a metal fin that seemed to have been manufactured by General Dynamics (a US company), which they said had been attached to the bomb and found nearby. Whilst The Times couldn’t confirm this, parts of American-made weapons are often found in the rubble of airstrikes in Yemen. In January 2018 a Saudi Arabia led airstrike hit the home of the Naji family. The strike killed the mother Roweyda and two sons, and injured the father, Riyad, his three year old son and one year old daughter. The site was at least 3km from any military object, no fighters were present, and the munition used to carry it out was manufactured in the USA by Lockheed Martin. This is a pattern, not isolated cases.

Despite this, the defence contractor Raytheon has lobbied lawmakers and the State Department in the USA to allow it to sell 60,000 precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in deals worth billions of dollars. While many European countries have suspended arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, countries such as the UK and France also continue to supply huge amounts of military equipment, whilst the US secretary of state has committed to continuing involvement in the war, including refuelling Saudi planes carrying out airstrikes. These choices will undoubtedly result in innumerable deaths of innocent civilians.

Many of these countries are parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, which aims to ‘reduce human suffering’ and makes it unlawful to transfer weapons where there is a high risk they could be used to commit serious violations of international law. Amnesty International has been urging all states to ensure that no party to the conflict in Yemen is supplied, either directly or indirectly, with any form of military equipment, technology or support that could be used in the conflict until they end such serious violations. Both the US and the UK have pointed to the creation of JIAT as evidence of effort to reduce civilian casualties, and use this as an excuse to maintain weapons sales. Judging by JIAT’s track record and their reaction to events such as the school bus bombing, this is clearly not enough.

‘Critics of US and UK policy argue that by continuing to arm the coalition while accepting whitewashed Saudi accounts of the civilian deaths, the two countries risk becoming legally complicit in war crimes.’ (source)

The UK’s only response to the bus attack was a tweet posted by Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, who said he was “deeply concerned” about reports of children’s deaths. He didn’t mention that the attack was carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, and he didn’t mention that it’s the UK that happily sells weapons to Saudi Arabia that are repeatedly used to kill children and civilians.

What is being done?

On 15 March 2018, the UN Security Council adopted a Presidential Statement (PRST) on the humanitarian situation in Yemen. The PRST represents a step forward to holding all parties to the conflict accountable. It calls for full humanitarian and commercial access, for all parties to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, and for members of the coalition to implement an arms embargo (an official ban on selling weapons) so that all parties can engage with a US led peace process. In September peace process talks broke down, international humanitarian law is still being broken and weapons are still being sold. Additionally no reporting mechanism on the implementation of the PRST has been established, so we don’t know if this has been effective in any way.

What can we do?

It’s easy, in fact it’s normal, to feel helpless in situations such as these. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do. Here are some suggestions: