While the regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia continues its aerial bombardment against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and as ground troops — from Bahrain, Sudan and United Arab Emirates — join the Saudis in the fray, the pain dealt to civilians, especially children, has been rising ever since the war began in March.
In Wahija, a village in Yemen at the confluence of the Red and Arabian Seas, missiles struck the wedding ceremony in late September of a local man and woman, leaving about 130 people dead, according to the United Nations.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, who has been unusually vocal about the high civilian death and injury toll from coalition airstrikes in Yemen, responded to the bombing by saying, “Any intentional attack against civilians is considered a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”
Amnesty International, the human-rights group, has gone further, saying that the weapons used in the coalition strikes have violated international laws and could amount to war crimes.
The Houthis are no saints, either, with their indiscriminate attacks as well as UN accusations of recruitment of child soldiers — more war crimes. In Taiz in southern Yemen, Human Rights Watch has just reported that the Houthis have “unlawfully confiscated food and medical supplies from civilians in the city” besides shelling civilian areas.
In an incredibly poor country of 24 million, 13 million people are going hungry; and 21 million need other humanitarian aid, like potable water; at least a half million children face severe malnutrition. Part of the problem is a Saudi blockade of ships at ports to restrict weapon flows, which has resulted in little delivery of crucial food and fuel to civilians. While the UN is doing what it can to alleviate the suffering from a hub in Djibouti, no letup in the desperation appears on the horizon.
As the Saudi coalition battles the Houthis, whom they say are influenced by Iran’s provision of arms and who oppose the government of Yemen, led by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a rush by European and North American powers to sell, plan to sell or otherwise provide weapons to the Saudis has been going on in private meetings since the summer.
The sales of sophisticated weapons have given the coalition an upper hand in Yemen, say experts and analysts, thus contributing to the bloodshed against civilians. Some diplomats and humanitarians worry that Yemen could become a worse fiasco, like Syria.
As Ban put it, “While the parties bicker, Yemen burns.”
The arms transfers have occurred as the UN Security Council itself has remained conspicuously quiet on the Yemen-Saudi confrontation. The Council has produced one resolution on the conflict, demanding that the Houthis hand over their weapons, among other actions. Recent efforts by Lithuania, a Council member, to pursue investigations into humanitarian violations by all parties in the war were tamped down by the US and Jordan on the Council. (Jordan is part of the Saudi coalition.)
Various media report that more than half of the approximately 4,500 dead from the war in Yemen have been civilians, killed mostly by coalition airstrikes. The UN’s own count of Yemeni dead and hurt, measured by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is lower but covers a shorter time period. It says that two-thirds of the dead and injured have been civilians caught in coalition strikes.
Amnesty International has documented hundreds of cases of civilians, many of them children and women, killed or injured while asleep in their homes or doing their daily activities — getting water, buying food, visiting relatives. Scores of people have been hit in supposed places of refuge. Some were killed or injured by mortars and crude Grad-type rockets fired by armed groups, or rebels; while others have been hit by bombs, some weighing up to 2,000 pounds, dropped by coalition forces.
Ban’s explicit criticism of the Saudi coalition’s seemingly indiscriminate bombing has left the Saudis seething, said one diplomat close to the situation. Recently, for example, Jan Eliasson, the UN deputy secretary-general, visited the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. There, he was to meet with King Salman bin Abdulaziz, but Eliasson was given the royal snub, the diplomat said.
The Saudi defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, who is leading the coalition and is the King’s son, is young — born in 1985 — and intent to show his might in the region, contributing to the popularity of the war in Saudi Arabia and sending a big message to counter its Shiite enemy, Iran, a main issue behind the war.
The UN’s special envoy for Yemen has once more announced possible talks between the Houthis and the Hadi government. To gather the opposing parties in Geneva, say, will take diplomatic dexterity. Hadi is back in exile in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, after briefly appearing in Aden, the Yemen seaport, after it was apparently recaptured by Yemeni soldiers this summer. With no leadership in Aden now, militias and terrorists have filled the void.
The US has been criticized by Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and other rights and aid groups for its involvement in the war, providing not only weapons but also logistical and technical knowledge. Recently, the US has started to assist the coalition in drone reconnaissance to reduce the civilian casualties.
Meanwhile, Russia has moved ahead with a deal to arm Iran with an S-300 air defense system, as Western governments have supported and reassured their Gulf allies, who are deeply unnerved by the nuclear deal with Iran, by agreeing to sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia.
A $1 billion arms deal between the US Pentagon and the Saudi government, for example, involves a large consignment of missiles to fit the Royal Saudi Air Force fleet of more than 70 American F-15 fighter jets. France joined in on the selling spree to Saudis by announcing in October a series of arms deals worth $11.4 billion. Britain has issued dozens of arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia since the March invasion. (Russia, France, the US and Britain are four of the five permanent members of the Security Council, with China the fifth.)
Given the potential threat by the arms sales to civilians in Yemen, Penny Lawrence, deputy chief executive of Oxfam, the charity organization, said the British actions represented a direct contravention of the Arms Trade Treaty ratified by Britain in December 2014 (the US is a signatory). Saudi Arabia possesses nearly as many British fighter jets as it does American ones.
Canada has finalized the largest arms deal in its history: $15 billion worth of light armored vehicles have been sold to the Saudis, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (The deal may fall apart now that Canada’s Conservative Party has been voted out for the Liberal Party.)
“Arms export decisions being taken by Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. are allowing weapons to fall into the hands of a coalition that is using them without regard for their humanitarian impact on civilians,” said Allison Pytlak, a policy and advocacy specialist for Control Arms, an international coalition that helped derive the Arms Trade Treaty, or ATT.
“These decisions contravene their national export policies as well as international law as established by the ATT.”
Attention on the use of American cluster bombs — weapons banned by most countries, though not by the US or Saudi Arabia — has also dramatized the risks to civilians in Yemen.
As Alexandra Hiniker, the UN representative of Pax, a Dutch peace organization, remarked on the use of cluster bombs in Yemen: “In every single place where cluster munitions have been used, statistics prove that it is civilians that pay the price, which is why 118 countries to date have joined the treaty banning the weapon. Even though the US and Saudi Arabia haven’t signed up to the treaty, they should adhere to the universal norm it has set and stop using and producing weapons that primarily kill and maim civilians.”
Tom Woodcock has worked with nonprofit groups in Ecuador, India, Southeast Asia and the United States. He recently graduated with an M.A. in international relations from the City College of New York, where his focus was on the rule of law in post-conflict settings.