Yemen’s forgotten war: Famine by design

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

By Anna-Christina Schmidl

When representatives of the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah on 13 December, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lauded the efforts as ‘real progress towards future talks to end the conflict.’[1]

The residents of the embattled city on the Red Sea, however, like the majority of 28 million Yemenis, are unlikely to share Guterres’ optimism. Since the outbreak of the civil war in early 2015, tens of thousands of civilians are estimated to have died as a direct result of fighting, while 17 million Yemenis – more than half of the population – are on the brink of starvation.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Sharing a 1,100-mile land border with Saudi Arabia, the country has often been at the centre stage of regional power politics. From 1962 to 1970, at the height of the Cold War, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and the Saudi monarchy supported opposing sides in a bloody civil war over control of the northwestern part of the country, then the independent Yemen Arab Republic.

With the Houthi takeover of the capital Sana’a in March 2015, Yemen has once again returned to the forefront of a proxy war between regional powers. This time, the conflict is not fought in the name of a fictitious confrontation of ideologies – Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy and Nasser’s pan-Arab socialism; rather, the Saudis allege that the Houthi rebels, a Shia-majority militia hailing from Yemen’s tribal north, receive financial and military support from Iran, Riyadh’s Shia-majority arch rival, and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. In order to avoid a perceived extension of Iran’s sphere of influence – the ‘Shiite crescent’ – to its immediate geographic south, Saudi Arabia and its allies from the Gulf Cooperation Council, backed by many Western countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, have launched a devastating campaign of airstrikes to defeat the Houthi insurgency.

Violations of international human rights and humanitarian law are widespread on both sides.[2]The Houthis are accused of using unguided rockets and land mines, resulting in a disproportionate number of civilian casualties, as well as detaining and torturing pro-government supporters, abducting journalists and human rights workers, and targeting places of worship – all clear infringements of widely accepted international norms. What makes the Saudi intervention particularly vicious, however, is its campaign of economic warfare. Not only have coalition airstrikes in Yemen killed thousands of civilians – in August, an attack on a school bus in the Houthi-controlled town of Saada claimed the lives of dozens of children.[3]In addition, according to Alexis de Waal of the World Peace Foundation, the Saudi campaign has destroyed large parts of Yemen’s economic infrastructure.[4]Coupled with a land, sea and aerial blockade of the country, this has led to rampant unemployment and a dramatic increase in prices – in short, economic collapse. Even though food supplies are available in the country, civilians can no longer afford to buy them.

Despite the catastrophic impact of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis on the civilian population, which one UN official said could develop into the worst famine seen worldwide in decades, the Saudi campaign falls into a ‘gray area’ of international law.[5]Article 54 of the 1977 First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, to which both Yemen and Saudi Arabia are party, prohibits ‘starvation of civilians as a method of warfare’ as well as the destruction of ‘objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,’ such as foodstuffs and agricultural areas. Article 54 undisputedly covers the Assad regime’s deliberate starvation of Syrian civilians during the siege of Aleppo, for example. However, it is much more difficult to establish intent in law where famine is only indirectly (though certainly no less deliberately) caused by military intervention. Hence, Saudi authorities will be quick to defend themselves by pointing out that mass starvation was merely the unintended ‘by-product’ of a limited aerial campaign.

Such lukewarm justifications should not be allowed to pass. Deliberate starvation of civilians is used as a weapon of war in Yemen. Res ipsa loquitur. It is time to hold those responsible to account before famine by design becomes the future of war.

[1]Bel Trew, “Glimmer of Hope for Yemen as Ceasefire Agreed for Embattled City of Hodeidah,” The Independent, December 14, 2018, accessed December 29, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/yemen-peace-talks-ceasefire-hodeidah-sweden-antonio-guterres-civil-war-famine-a8681541.html.

[2]“War Crimes Tracker,” The Yemen Peace Project, accessed December 31, 2018, https://www.yemenpeaceproject.org/warcrimes/.

[3]Shuaib Almosawa and Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Coalition Airstrike Hits School Bus in Yemen, Killing Dozens,” The New York Times, August 09, 2018, accessed December 31, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/09/world/middleeast/yemen-airstrike-school-bus-children.html.

[4]Jane Ferguson, “Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?” The New Yorker, July 11, 2018, accessed December 31, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/is-yemen-intentional-starvation-the-future-of-war.


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