Yemen's Civil War: Another Middle East Quagmire
By Deepa Mahadevan Civilians in Yemen are bearing the burden of the ongoing conflict that is raging between opposing militant groups. In September 2014, Ansar Allah, more commonly known as the “Houthis,” a militant group originating in northern Yemen, seized control of the capital and large parts of the country with the help of army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since then, anti- Houthi armed groups and other army units supported by a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition have been caught in a raging conflict to regain the lost territory. All parties involved in the conflict have demonstrated an overt disregard for civilian lives and the fundamental principles of international law. They have killed and injured hundreds of Yemeni citizens not involved in the conflict, many of them women and children, in disproportionate and indiscriminate airstrikes and ground attacks. The conflict has raged in 20 out of the country’s 22 governorates and has killed close to 4,000 people – half of them civilians. Over one million civilians have been displaced since March 2015.
In the southern region of Yemen, Houthi and anti-Houthi armed groups battling for control in the cities of Aden and Ta’iz have routinely launched offensives in densely populated residential areas, using weapons lacking the technology to aim at specific targets, and putting civilian lives at high risk. In addition to the large number of civilian casualties resulting from indiscriminate violence, many innocent people returning home after the fighting in the Aden region had died down have been killed and injured from landmines laid by the parties in conflict.
The Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have also killed and wounded civilians in unlawful airstrikes that have similarly failed to distinguish between military targets and civilian occupied targets in Houthi-controlled territories. Hundreds of cases have been reported in which women and children were killed or injured while asleep or carrying out daily activities in the places where they had sought refuge after being displaced by the conflict. Entire neighborhoods have become virtually deserted as residents flee their homes fearing attacks. Airstrikes render residential areas without water, electricity, and other services. Additionally, the sick and wounded have run into many challenges accessing proper medical care due to the difficulty of acquiring safe passage through military checkpoints.
Houthi loyalists and anti-Houthi armed groups involved in ground fighting in Aden and Ta’iz have characteristically harmed and endangered civilians residing in the area as they battled for the control of the two cities. Attacks by both sides failed to make the distinction between military and civilian residents. Residents of the locale reported instances when fighters launched attacks in their neighborhoods, despite the presence of civilians nearby, thus exposing them to the risk of retaliatory attacks.
The warring parties have greatly hindered the delivery of humanitarian aid to areas controlled by their opponents, causing a sharp deterioration in the humanitarian situation. Prior to the conflict, 60 percent of Yemen’s population was in need of some sort of basic assistance in areas such as food; water; healthcare; or shelter. That demand has risen to 80 percent — 4 out of 5 Yemenis— which prompted UN agencies to declare a Level 3 emergency response (the most severe) in Yemen until January, 2016.
The crisis has severely disrupted the delivery of essential services in cities and rural areas alike. Schools have been closed since March 2015 and are currently being used as shelters for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) instead of education facilities. Ministry of Education officials in Sana’a report that 600,000 students have been unable to take their high school final exams because schools due to the government’s reappropriation of the buildings.
Damage to power stations has left Aden and Ta’iz without electricity for prolonged periods of time and has disrupted vital services such as food supply. Access to water has been hindered as well due to lack of fuel needed to operate the water pumps and by damage caused to water sanitation infrastructure. A paramedic working in a health center in the Aden region said,“What is electricity? It’s been so long that we have forgotten what it is. We had some water until 10 days ago but since then we have none, and there is no telephone network coverage here. It is very difficult to run a hospital in these conditions. The lack of electricity and water was making life unbearable, especially with the high temperatures.”
Under international humanitarian law, civilian humanitarian relief personnel must be granted freedom of movement by all parties to the conflict and must be protected from attack; harassment; intimidation; and arbitrary detention. Therefore, the parties involved in the conflict must, in the future, allow for the facilitation and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need. All states involved in the conflict must comply with these provisions of humanitarian law and take measurable precautions to minimize harm to civilians by giving warnings of impending attacks to populations in areas at risk. It is necessary for the international community to condemn the violations and war crimes being committed in Yemen, as they pose a challenge to the universal application of international law.