ODVV interview: Weapon manufactures have made...
Conflict in Yemen, one of the most impoverished nations on the face of the earth, is well into its sixth year. The United Nations has warned about the acuteness of the world’s biggest humanitarian emergency gripping the Arab country owing to a multisided fighting that has not yet subsided despite intervention by global powers and international organizations.
The combined death toll from the conflict, hunger, diseases and lack of health facilities has surpassed 235,000 while nearly 20 million people, representing around 70 percent of the population, suffer from sever hunger, including 2 million children under five who are critically malnourished.
University of Denver researchers estimate the ongoing war has cost the frail economy of Yemen USD89 billion. In 2013, one year before the eruption of conflict, the Gross Domestic Product of Yemen stood at USD40.42 billion. In 2020, the GDP is projected to reach USD24 billion, bespeaking the fallouts of the deadly war for the fortunes of the poor Middle East nation where almost half of the population lives on less than two dollars per day.
Saudi Arabia, in cahoots with a coalition of nine Arab countries, has waged a massive, prolonged military campaign in Yemen to curb the insurgency of Houthis and restore the government of the ousted President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Western powers have been supplying advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia in big proportions, which it has used in its incursions into the crisis-stricken Yemen. Only in the first four years of the conflict, the UK government licensed £6.3 billion worth of arms to the Saudi-led coalition. In the interim, the United States has been exporting billions of dollars’ worth of transport planes, combat aircraft, precision-guided bombs and tanks manufactured by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Dynamics to Saudi Arabia, in defiance of Congressional resolutions blocking such sales.
Congress Democrats are opposed to the United States being dragged into the humanitarian nightmare unfurling in Yemen.
Hassan El-Tayyab is the lead lobbyist on Middle East policy at Friends Committee on National Legislation. Prior to joining FCNL in 2019, he was co-director of the national advocacy group Just Foreign Policy. His writings and commentary have been featured in BBC World News, The Hill, Al-Jazeera, The Huffington Post, The Intercept and other online and print outlets.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Mr. El-Tayyab to discuss the role of global powers and international organizations in the Yemeni crisis, the human rights situation in the war-torn country, the contribution of regional countries to the continuation of the war and the failure of a United Nations-brokered agreement to end the hostilities.
Q: Yemen is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. Some 20 United Nations agencies provide humanitarian, food, educational and relief assistance and implement development programs across the country. Why did the Yemeni civil war, which was a domestic uprising at the outset, take on international dimensions with Saudi Arabia and its allied forces as well as major global powers getting involved in the conflict?
A: Yemen’s political instability began after a 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. Then Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, became Yemen’s interim president for what was supposed to be a two-year term, as they moved to a more representative form of government with regular elections. In 2014, channeling the frustration of many Yemenis’ complaints of rampant corruption, unemployment and increase in fuel prices, the Houthis took control of Yemen and entered Sana’a in September with the assistance of ex-president Saleh, and put Hadi under house arrest. Saudi Arabia that fought with the Houthis in support of Saleh, in 2009 was alarmed by the Houthis’ control of Yemen.
After the Houthis took control of Sana’a, Yemen’s President Hadi fled to Riyadh and Saudis claimed that he requested military support from Saudi Arabia. However, in a TV interview, Hadi said that he was not aware that the Saudis were going to start bombing Yemen. The Saudis formed a coalition of nine Arab countries including its major supporter in the war, the UAE and all Gulf Cooperation Council countries except Oman. Saudi Arabia framed the conflict in sectarian terms insisting Iran was supporting the Houthis, an indigenous group. The coalition was backed by the US and the UK. In March 2015, Saudi-led coalition’s operations began with airstrikes and a naval blockade against Yemen.
The Saudi government was motivated to support reinstalling Hadi to power for many reasons. They were alarmed by the rise of the Houthis at their southern border who they believed to be backed by their main regional competitor, Iran. Additionally, the Bab al-Mandab Strait off the coast of Yemen is a critical oil shipping lane that links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This sea route facilitates the movement of millions of barrels of oil per day for Saudi Arabia and is critical to the world’s oil supply. The Yemen war has also served the political ambitions of Mohammad Bin Salman, who has used this conflict to gain national recognition and consolidate power in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-UAE led coalition’s war on Yemen has received almost unwavering military support and weapons sales from the US, UK, France and other Western countries. At the start of the Yemen war in March 2015, the Obama administration was simultaneously negotiating the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. This diplomatic agreement was largely opposed by Saudi Arabia as they feared the prospect of the US and Iran moving closer together and what that could mean for the US-Saudi alliance and their own regional ambitions. In an attempt to appease Riyadh, the Obama administration accommodated Saudi Arabia’s request for military backing of the coalition’s war on Yemen and agreed to provide targeting assistance and logistical support for coalition airstrikes, midair refueling for Saudi war planes, spare parts transfers, and billions of dollars in weapons sales.
When President Trump took office, the support continued despite the fact that Yemen had become the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis and Congress passed several bipartisan resolutions to end unauthorized military participation and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The US administration often cites the economic benefits and jobs created from the weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE as justification to keep the US supporting the Yemen war. The war against the Houthis has become a part of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and its proxies in the region. Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, have often overplayed the threat of Iran in Yemen as part of a larger regional strategy of keeping the US engaged militarily in the Middle East indefinitely, so they can continue to enjoy the benefits of the US security umbrella.
According to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a former Bush administration official, “Saudi Arabia's rival Iran, too, benefits from the prolonged conflict. Iran has provided some support to the Houthis, but far less than Saudi Arabia and its partners have claimed. Iran seems to see the war as a low-cost way to mire Saudi Arabia and its allies in a quagmire in which each day brings fresh military, financial and reputational costs.”
Q: According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 80 percent of the Yemeni population are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. World Food Program has put the number of food insecure Yemeni citizens at 20 million. While no end is in sight for the conflict, can the international aid organizations be expected to play a determining role in alleviating the suffering of the Yemeni civilians?
A: With news that an urgent UN appeal for assistance to the war-torn country came out over a billion dollar short, alongside a suspension in assistance by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and reports of rapidly increasing cases of the novel coronavirus in Yemen, health experts fear there will be a convergence of crises that completely overwhelm the country and have devastating consequences for the population.
Humanitarian work in Yemen is absolutely critical as 4 million people have been displaced and 80 percent of the country’s 30 million people rely on some form of assistance for survival.
Unfortunately, at a time of untold human suffering, the Trump administration has made drastic cuts to international aid to Yemen, including the suspension of USD73 million in USAID assistance to Houthi-controlled territories in northern Yemen, where currently 80 percent of the population lives.
To make matters worse, this suspension of USAID funding is occurring alongside a 50 percent cut in aid to most of the country by the World Food Program, the reduction or closing of three quarters of all major United Nations aid programs, and a rollback of World Health Organization programming.
It is important to note that aid alone can’t support a population of 30 million people. The Saudi blockade that had chocked the economy is the main contributor to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and must be lifted if we are to see a real improvement in the lives of millions of people suffering. The long-term solution Yemen so desperately needs is negotiated ceasefire that also brings an end to the blockade. The US and other coalition partners can help Yemen by ending their complicity in the war and putting pressure on the warring parties to reach a lasting peace deal.
Q: Since the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen in March 2015, several countries have been selling arms to the Saudis in large proportions, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands. Doesn’t this large-scale provision of weaponry to Saudi Arabia to be used in the war on Yemen contradict the human rights obligations of these states?
A: The US State Department’s Human Rights and Democracy policy webpage states, “the protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago. Since then, a central goal of US foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
This statement of values by the US government is in direct contradiction with its ongoing military support for the brutal Saudi-led war on Yemen, that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and pushed nearly 14 million Yemenis to the brink of famine. Last September, the United Nations released a report indicating that by providing military aid, intelligence sharing, logistical support, and weapons to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the US, UK, and France may be complicit in war crimes. The report documents horrific violations of international law, including airstrikes targeting civilian and agricultural infrastructure, arbitrary killings, torture, detention, and sexual violence against women. Weapons sales and military support to the war makes these countries complicit in war crimes and is perpetuating the violence by giving Saudi Arabia and the UAE moral cover.
By continuing to give a blank check to the Saudi and UAE-led war on Yemen, coalition partners are eroding their own moral authority and reputation on the world stage, and along with it their ability to credibly engage in meaningful diplomacy to advance human rights and democracy moving forward.
Q: It is believed that extremist militant organizations, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have built on the power vacuum in Yemen created by the civil war and are making advances in different parts of the country, even though the leader of AQAP Qasim al-Rimi was killed in February. These developments do not bode well for the international community’s efforts to fight terrorism. Do you think a fractured Yemen without a central government can turn into the new epicenter of exporting terrorism?
A: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has seen their recruitment increase as a direct result of the war in Yemen. As long as the war continues, AQAP will find plenty of places in the country to survive and plenty of frustrated Yemenis, tired of years of war, blockades, and disease, that are open to joining their ranks. The only way to truly stop the spread of AQAP’s influence in Yemen is to end the war, end the blockade, and stabilize the country with a durable power-sharing agreement.
It is also not just a question of them thriving in a power vacuum as these AQAP forces are sometimes receiving direct military support from the Saudi-led coalition to fight the Houthis. Ironically, sometimes this support means that AQAP terrorist targets of the US are actually making deals with the Saudi, UAE-led coalition and Hadi forces to obtain weapons originally provided by the US.
Q: It was announced earlier this year that in their most significant attempt to end the war, Saudi Arabia and the Houthis worked on exchanging hundreds of prisoners. Moreover, Saudi Arabia gave permission for medical evacuation flights to take off from the Sana'a airport. Are these efforts effective steps to herald the cessation of hostilities, drawing an end to the tensions?
A: After several years of negotiations and much attention in the press, in February this year, we saw two medical evacuation flights with a total of 28 patients leave Sana’a airport, after its initial closure by Saudi Arabia in August of 2016. That was the last flight of its kind ever since and is nowhere near adequate to support the tens of thousands of people that are facing medical emergencies in Houthi-controlled territory in northern Yemen.
While over the course of the Yemen war there have been occasional breakthroughs in negotiations, the airstrikes and blockade continue with no end in sight. Until the international community gets serious about leveraging its military support for the Saudi, UAE-led coalition, we will continue to see stagnation in UN-led peace talks. It is worth noting that the four countries that formed a quartet to make decisions on the war on Yemen are the US, UK, UAE and Saudi Arabia. This explains the power dynamics, the negotiations and points to the groups that have the power to end the war.
Q: At the end of 2019, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project reported that the number of Yemen war casualties had exceeded 100,000, including 12,000 civilians killed in directly targeted attacks. Will Saudi Arabia, as the cause of the carnage, ever be held accountable by the international community?
A: The most pressing thing the international community must do is to immediately end all military support and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If they feel like there is a credible risk of losing all international support, they will work quickly to end the conflict. Weapons manufactures in the US, Britain and other countries have made billions of dollars in profits from the war on Yemen. A fraction of those funds would be able to rebuild Yemen and end the suffering of the population.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE must also feel pressure from the international community and the UN to pay for the damage they have caused to Yemen. Even if the war ends tomorrow, Yemen needs reconstruction and massive financial support to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Riyadh must start by simply providing the USD500 million they pledged to Yemen in 2020, of which they have only contributed USD22.8 million so far. The UAE has pledged zero dollars in 2020 and have given nothing this year. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have spent billions of dollars on the destruction of Yemen and have unleashed unimaginable suffering on millions of people. These two countries are chiefly responsible for the carnage in Yemen and must pay to help rebuild the country.
The UN Security Council should refer violations and crimes committed in Yemen to the International Criminal Court and impose sanctions on individuals for violations and war crimes. The UN Human Rights Council should also establish a criminally-focused investigation. The US and the UK have repeatedly blocked efforts by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct independent investigation into war crimes committed by all parties in the Yemen war.
In the long term, accountability must also take the form of a complete referendum of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. Congress has already started this process by having a public debate on the US participation in the Yemen war. This debate should also include finding ways to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, their oil production’s impact on climate change, women’s rights, the male guardianship and kafala systems, the torturing and imprisonment of countless human rights activists and journalists, the support for terrorist groups like AQAP and Al-Nusra Front, and more.
There is opportunity on this question of accountability in the candidacy of Vice President Joe Biden and the new Democratic platform, which both seek to reform the US-Saudi alliance starting with ending the US support and weapons sales for the Saudi, UAE-led war in Yemen.
Q: Why didn’t the momentum of the Stockholm Agreement, facilitated by the United Nations in December 2018, last long, and the two sides of the accord, namely the Houthis and the Yemeni government, failed to uphold their commitments in terms of the Hodeida peace and exchange of prisoners, among other areas of cooperation?
A: Throughout this war, we have seen a consistent pattern. International pressure on the coalition works to advance peace talks between the warring parties. It is no coincidence that the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, paving the way for a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeida, was signed the same day the US Congress passed legislation to end military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Following the ceasefire, Congress forced more Yemen war votes, helping push the UAE to draw down its forces in Yemen, spur a reduction in cross-border attacks by the Saudis and Houthis, and revive negotiations between the warring parties.
2019 also saw a major reduction in cross-border violence between Saudis and the Houthis, due in part to sustained attention by Congress. But after Congressional negotiators dropped provisions to end military assistance to the Saudis in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act coupled with the Trump veto of the Yemen War Powers Resolution, Yemen suffered a breakdown in diplomacy and an uptick in violence. Between December 2019 and January 2020, the total number of Saudi air raids jumped by 294 percent. By February, air raids were up another 118 percent.
In 2020 there was a brief period of hope among some in the international community after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire to combat COVID-19 and reports emerged that Saudi Arabia called for a unilateral ceasefire in Yemen. Unfortunately, that hope was short-lived and did nothing to slow down the violence. The Houthis rejected the deal, calling for an end to the blockade, while Saudi coalition airstrikes and blockade continued despite their calls for a unilateral ceasefire.
What is clear is that unilateral ceasefires will not work and that military complicity from the international community is perpetuating the violence. International actors must stop fueling the war so Yemen can finally achieve a durable ceasefire agreement between all warring parties, an end to the blockade, an end to the obstruction of trade and humanitarian assistance, and accountability for all violations of human rights. After over five years of devastating war, famine, and disease, Yemen simply cannot wait any longer.
By: Kourosh Ziabari