Since the 2011 Houthi insurgence, the State of Yemen is trapped in a spiral of violence that ultimately escalated into a bloody civil war, which is of global concern since it also acquired a  geopolitical dimension, first and foremost with the intervention of Saudi Arabia and UAE in 2015.  

The history of Yemen is a complicated one, due both to internal factors (rebellions, civil wars, the differences between northern and southern Yemen) and to the relationship with bordering  Saudi Arabia and other foreign countries which intervened during the civil wars. Overall, the Saudi policy towards Yemen aimed at the containment of the Yemeni government to avoid challenges to Saudi security; at the same time, to avoid the economic collapse of the country, which would destabilise the entire region, financial aid was provided by Saudi Arabia. 

In 2011, pro-democracy protesters started demonstrations in order to force former President Ali  Abdullah Saleh to end his thirty-year-rule. He did not resign, and so demonstrations continued until  March 2011, when tensions in Sana’a, the capital city, ended up in shootings on the protesters by the military. The President was forced to transfer his powers to his Vice-President, Hadi, after negotiation by the Gulf Cooperation Council.  

In this context, we can place the actions of the Houthis, the political representation of the northern part of Yemen. The Houthi movement is Zaydi Shiites who protested against the betrayal of Zaydi values and the discriminations by the Saleh regime. The Houthis had an active role from the 2011’s protests until they took advantage of the weakness of the transition government and launched a  military offensive to get control of Sana’a, in September 2014: this was the beginning of the  Yemeni civil war, between the government forces (Hadi’s supporters, backed by Saudi Arabia) and the Houthi forces (supported by Iran), which came into an alliance with the former President Saleh.  

After the forced resignation of Hadi and an unsuccessful mediation by the UN, the Houthis, in March  2015, launched a new offensive to the South, and, on March 25, 2015, to stop the Houthis’ offensive,  Saudi Arabia launched an armed intervention in Yemen, in support of the government forces. Saudi  Arabia formed and started leading a coalition including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab  Emirates, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Morocco and Senegal and got logistical, intelligence and arms support from the United States, France and the UK. Moreover, AQAP forces supported those of the coalition, even though officially there was no cooperation between them.  

In April 2016, negotiations between the Hadi government and the Houthis’ began, thanks to the UN  intervention. However, fighting continued and, in July, the Houthis proclaimed the formation of a  Governing Council, which meant the collapse of the negotiations and more bombings. Saudi Arabia claimed it was acting in defence of Yemen’s legitimate government, but, after six years, the coalition has not achieved its goal of restoring power to Hadi. 

Meanwhile, the Houthi armed group has consolidated its power on Sana’a and much of the northern region, particularly after Houthi forces assassinated their previous ally, former president Saleh, in 2017. Today, there are more than 30 fronts across Yemen involving fighting by various domestic armed groups, in addition to the coalition’s airstrikes. Both sides to the conflict have been responsible for unlawful attacks that harmed civilians, many of them carried out with disregard for civilian life, and that may amount to war crimes. Both the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi forces are responsible for civilian deaths and injuries and for the several massive violations of human rights.  Data collection, in this context, has proved extremely difficult, so that clear estimates are not available. At least 17,500 civilians have been killed and wounded by the airstrikes carried out by the coalition, and, at the same time, the Houthi forces made indiscriminate use of violence through antipersonnel landmines and ballistic missiles.

Furthermore, all the parties to the conflict, from the Houthi forces, to the Yemeni government, but also the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and various coalition-backed armed groups, have arbitrarily detained and abused people, including children, held them in poor conditions, and forcibly disappeared people perceived to be political opponents or security threats. 

Another issue of grave concern is the situation of women in Yemen, who, already prior to the conflict, suffered massive discrimination. According to the UN Population Fund, violence against women in Yemen, since the beginning of the hostilities, has increased by at least 63%. Moreover,  according to the UN Report of the Group of Eminent Experts, women and men also faced sexual violence, abuses and torture while in detention.  

In the backdrop of this humanitarian crisis affecting the civilian population of Yemen, the Covid-19  pandemic has added as a new layer of this crisis, especially because of the stress to the health system which was already under pressure because of the war. Many health facilities have been targeted by the attacks of all the parties to the conflict; also, Houthis have severely hampered and diverted international aid in areas under their control.  

The spread of Covid-19 in Yemen is impossible to track, because of the limited testing capacity,  therefore the actual numbers are impossible to know. Furthermore, Yemen is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, and the conflict has severely damaged water systems, exacerbating the situation. It is obvious that without water and sanitation systems, the infections by Covid-19 are impossible to prevent. Moreover, already before the spread of Covid-19, other diseases were reported in Yemen, such as the outbreak of cholera and of dengue fever.  

Moreover, Houthi authorities have allegedly been hiding the real impact of Covid-19 in the areas under their control, and this could imply, based on epidemiological projections, the infection of around 55% of the population of Yemen. 

For all the above-mentioned reasons, the conflict is becoming more and more complicated, and the lives of the Yemeni people are at stake every day, therefore an adequate solution needs to be found at the international level. To explain this point, the root causes need to be understood. It is not easy to give a single interpretation of the Yemeni war. At a first glance, the proxy war scenario, in the picture of the regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, seems the most credible interpretation. In reality, in other areas, this framing was the most convincing (Bahrain, Syria),  whereas in Yemen this is not the case, since Iran’s involvement is not as much consistent. The root cause of the conflict in Yemen is a complex power struggle for the State. At the same time, the politics of Yemen cannot be separated from the interests of its biggest neighbour in the Gulf, Saudi  Arabia. Hence, although the drivers of the conflict are mainly internal, the involvement of external actors has turned a manageable (but still serious) internal power struggle into a regional power competition with sectarian overtones

The conflict is often overlooked by Western mainstream media, even though it has now acquired the dimension of a humanitarian catastrophe that deserves all the attention at a global level and the finding of a solution. The situation acquires even more relevance considering that the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen stated that several Western powers (namely, the US, the UK and  France) may be complicit in the ongoing war crimes through arms sales and intelligence support given to the Saudi-led coalition. 

According to Human Rights Watch, despite the evidence of violations of international law by the parties to the conflict, efforts toward accountability have been inadequate. The UK Government eventually agreed to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia after the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the government’s refusal to consider Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian law violations in Yemen, before licensing arms sales, was unlawful. However, the UK is currently appealing the court decision, and even announced to resume arms sales. Actually, currently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the two largest customers of the European arms industry.  

For what concerns the US, up until now, the now-former President Trump used his veto power to block the efforts of Congress to try and stop US arms sales to the coalition, given his strong support for Saudi Arabia, the US largest weapons’ buyer. However, things are rapidly changing with  the taking office of President Biden. He initiated a review of US Yemen Policy, announcing that his aim is to halt “offensive support” for the Saudi-led coalition’s war effort in Yemen, while “stepping up” diplomatic support for United Nations-led mediation efforts. It remains to be seen whether this change in attitude can bring a more responsible approach of all the foreign powers that came to be involved in the conflict in a way or another.  

At the moment, there is the need to broker a cease-fire and to bring the parties to the table for face to-face negotiations led by the UN, and these should include more political parties and civil society groups. The most pressing issues related to the humanitarian situation, the spread of diseases and to the ending of indiscriminate violence towards civilians. Building a long-lasting peace in the  

The country seems more and more difficult, but all efforts should be devoted to easing the humanitarian crisis which right now is the most worrying aspect of the whole crisis. 

By Aida Faillace

Aida is an International Relations and European Studies Graduate, at the University of Florence. Specialized in Human Rights and International Law.

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