The world talks about Syria, it talks about Paris and Mali, it talks about climate change, and Russian planes. But somehow the mass media forgot about the still ongoing war in Yemen. Since late March of this year, the Saudi-led coalition has been bombing territory occupied by rebels, leaving 1.5 million Yemenis displaced. Close to 6,000 people have been killed, but around 14 million people, equaling more than half of the entire population, have become food insecure. Of those, 7 million are ‘severely food insecure’, the second most severe category of food insecurity after ‘catastrophe/famine’. Many aid organizations, such as the World Food Programme or Oxfam, describe the situation as a catastrophe and famine waiting to happen, with ongoing fighting in the areas of greatest need and the worsening of food shortages.
But who is actually fighting in Yemen? If you are a young person, then it might surprise you to learn that Yemen only became one unified country in 1990. For most of the 20th century, Yemen existed as two separate countries: the Yemen Arabic Republic (YAR) in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south. The country has since been instable, due to a large number of reasons. Soon after the unification, the south complained of political and economic marginalisation by the government in Sana’a and fought a civil war in 1994 in a failed attempt to reverse the unification. In addition to the separatist unrest in the south, there are power struggles between tribal and military factions, frequent attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and multiple rounds of fighting with the Houthi rebels in the north. Furthermore, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East with hindered development due to instability, large-scale displacement, weak governance, corruption, resource depletion, and poor infrastructure.
The political landscape is extremely intricate and complex. The ongoing conflict, in a very simplified visualization, is between former President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the rebel group known as Houthis. The rebel group is also referred to as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), who adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known a Zaidism. Zaidis make up a third of the Yemeni population and have ruled North Yemen under a system known as the imamate for almost a thousand years until 1962. The name ‘Houthis’ comes from Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi who led the group’s first uprising in 2004 to greater autonomy for their heartland of Saada province and to protect Zaidi religions and cultural traditions from the perceived encroachment by Sunni Islamists. However, Houthi was killed by the Yemeni military in late 2004. Since then, his family took charge and led five more rebellions before signing a ceasefire with the government in 2010.
How did violence erupt again leading Yemen back to a state of full-blown war? In 2011, the Houthis joined protests against then President Saleh and took advantage of the power vacuum to expand their territorial control in the northern neighbor provinces of Saada and Amran. The group then opposed the plans of the then new President Hadi for Yemen to become a federation of six regions, saying it would leave them weakened. On March 19, the Houthi-led Supreme Revolutionary Committee government issued a declaration with the plan of overthrowing President Hadi. Supported by military forces loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthi offensive quickly reached Aden, the seat of power for Hadi’s government. Hadi quickly left Yemen to live in exile in Saudi Arabia and requested help from his neighbors. On March 26th, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, launched military operations by using airstrikes to restore the former Yemeni government. The coalition is reported to consist mainly of military forces from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain, in addition to the Saudi forces. The coalition says it’s enacting United Nations Security Council resolution 2216, which demands that the Houthis withdraw from all areas seized during the latest conflict, relinquish arms seized from military and security institutions, and cease all actions falling exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen. As such, it imposes sanctions and an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels.
Now, months later, there is still no end in sight. Even talks are far from being on the table with Hadi and the coalition asking Houthis to obey the demands of the resolution first, whilst the Houthis and Saleh want talks to address the implementation mechanisms for the resolution. Repeatedly, bombings of civilian targets are reported, which can amount to war crimes. With the UK and U.S. continuing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and providing the Saudi-led coalition with liaison officers and technical support, even they come close to infringing the Arms Trade Treaty which prohibits the sale of weapons where there is a clear risk that they could be used for war crimes.
Meanwhile, relief workers cannot access the areas of greatest need, several border facilities have been closed, and many access routes have been destroyed. A large rise of cases of malnourished children has been reported and now millions of Yemenis are at risk of starvation. Certainly, the climate talks are important. But we cannot allow this huge humanitarian crisis to go underreported; drawing attention to the worsening situation is necessary to avoid the last step into catastrophe and famine, with an extreme loss of life still being avoidable.
Written by Marie-Luise Schwarzenberg and published on 12-December-2015