John Hursh to “Alkhabar Alyemeni”: Hard to Argue that International Community has not Failed Yemen

While Yemen is experiencing the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world, one look at the great Western interest in the war in Ukraine, and the assessment of the position on the war in the European country, with the position that may appear in many cases completely contradictory to the war in Yemen, raises many questions, especially as the war in Yemen is entering its eighth year, considering the escalation of the tragedy.

Why this double in international standard? Why is the blockade imposed on Yemen being ignored, which causes so much suffering, and what are the aspects of Washington’s support for the coalition in its war on Yemen, and can it be said that we are in the eighth year of the war that the world has failed the Yemenis?

To answer these questions, Alkhabar Alyemeni hosted John Hursh, director of the Program on Democracy in the Arab World Now (DAWN) and visiting scholar at Brown University’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies.

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The war in Yemen is entering its eighth year, and while the world’s attention is directed towards Ukraine in solidarity and imposing sanctions against Russia, Yemenis are raising questions about the standards according to which sentences are passed. Why does the international community talk about human rights in Ukraine, and stand by Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen?

While there are important differences between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war in Yemen, it seems clear that many Western policymakers, as well as journalists and commentators, view the war in Ukraine as a different kind of conflict and with a different level of priority. The international community talks about the importance of upholding human rights in both conflicts, but it is clearly more ready to act in Ukraine than it is in Yemen. The rapid imposition of sanctions against Russia, compared to a muddled response and continued military support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, show two starkly different approaches.

Part of the reason for this difference in approach is the audacity of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but another part is an indifference to the war in Yemen from many Westerners, and especially Americans, who are tired of more than two decades of fighting Forever Wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. And while U.S. and Western involvement is significantly different in Yemen than it is in other Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan, there is still a tendency to view the war in Yemen as just another Middle East conflict.

Let’s talk about the blockade imposed by the coalition on Yemen. Since 2017, dozens of reports and statements have been issued, talking about the catastrophic results of this blockade, and despite the fact that the disaster has already occurred, there has been no serious move to end the blockade or even show solidarity with Yemenis who are dying of starvation, as is the case with Ukraine.

There is little doubt that by denying civilians humanitarian assistance such as food, medicine, and other objects indispensable to their survival, Saudi-led coalition forces are violating international humanitarian law. This includes the interdiction of fuel, which directly led to the collapse of Yemen’s electrical grid and water infrastructure and the foreseeable cholera epidemic that followed. This calamity continues today, as the coalition blocks access to all ports and airports, making life nearly unbearable for many Yemenis. While Western officials call for ceasefires and end to these closures, there has been little action towards achieving this outcome.

Many human rights organizations and advocacy groups have struggled to keep attention on Yemen because of the protracted nature of the conflict, an overemphasis on the Houthi relationship with Iran instead of the need to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, and Western leaders trying to walk a line between placating Saudi and UAE leaders to align against Russia and produce more oil to tamp down gasoline and energy prices.

The blockade is truly an outrageous act that accomplishes little other than starving the Yemeni people. This collective punishment is a clear violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law and it should end immediately.

What is the legal description of the blockade imposed on Yemen?

Under international law, the Saudi coalition’s blockade is not even an actual blockade. The law of naval warfare, which includes the law of blockade, does not apply to non-international armed conflicts, like the war in Yemen. Whether the law of blockade is still binding international law is itself an unsettled question, as the most significant effort to codify the law of blockade was the 1909 London Declaration, which was not ratified and did not enter into force as a treaty. Some international lawyers argue that this declaration nonetheless represents customary international law and is therefore still binding on states. This is not a persuasive argument, as state practice and opinio juris simply do not support this position. And even if this argument is accepted, it still would not apply to the armed conflict in Yemen.

While the closure of Yemen’s air, land, and sea ports is not a blockade in a legal sense, this does not make these actions lawful. By closing these ports and denying the delivery of humanitarian goods, the coalition forces are greatly contributing to the suffering of Yemeni people. There is a strong argument that these international humanitarian law violations constitute war crimes. At the very least, there is no valid legal argument justifying these acts and they should stop.

Why is the Western media ignoring this tragedy?

The Western media is not entirely ignoring the tragedy in Yemen, but there is no doubt that it could be doing more to cover the conflict and the people affected by it. The most obvious reason is that Western media has rushed to cover the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While that is of course an important story with huge geopolitical ramifications, there are also more troubling reasons, reflected in the way that journalists cover the war in Ukraine versus how they cover the war in Yemen. Lorraine Ali of the Los Angeles Times wrote an excellent article addressing this point and showing the racist assumptions that persist about war in Ukraine, a “civilized” European country, and that of Yemen or other conflicts in the Middle East. These assumptions help explain why Western media is more interested in covering Ukraine than other conflicts.

Western media also tends to give less coverage to conflicts the longer that they last. As the war in Yemen continues and there appears to be little movement by the Saudi coalition forces or the Houthis to take decisive military action or move towards peace, Western media, with some important exceptions, loses interest.

How did the United States of America contribute to the human tragedy in Yemen?

The most significant contribution that the United States made to the ongoing crisis in Yemen is providing the Saudi coalition with weapons and military support to continue its military operations. Presented with clear evidence of the Saudi coalition’s numerous violations of international humanitarian law, many of which likely amount to war crimes, U.S. officials decided to ignore these violations and continue supplying Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Middle Eastern states with massive amounts of weapons to continue this unwinnable war. And this is true across presidential administrations, as the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations all provided coalition forces with millions in military aid and sometimes provided logistical and other forms of military support.

The Biden administration promised to end all “offensive” military support to the coalition in February 2021, but this is not a meaningful distinction, as evidenced by the administration’s decision to sell $650 million of missiles and missile launchers to Saudi Arabia last November, despite the objections of 30 U.S. Senators. These decisions prolong the conflict and make the United States morally, and perhaps legally, complicit in the devastation of Yemen.

There are those who say that the world has let down Yemenis. Do you agree with this opinion?

It is hard to argue that the international community has not failed Yemen. There are many examples to choose from, but the most recent U.N. funding shortfall, where only $1.3 of a requested $4.3 billion funding request was met, is especially disappointing. Few dispute that the Yemeni people are experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world with millions on the brink of famine and 80 percent of Yemenis requiring humanitarian assistance. Nonetheless, many major donors failed to provide adequate funding to meet these urgent needs. This includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as both countries did not contribute to this funding request.

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