While the world is watching Syria, and Europe finally becomes aware of the refugee tragedy that has burdened on Syria’s neighbouring countries already for several years, the disaster in Yemen is passing fairly unnoticed. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and including Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Bahrain intervened in March against a Houthi uprising which drove president Hadi in exile. The fighting is generally considered a Sunni-Shi’ite proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is backing the Houthis. Iran denies accusations of supplying arms to the insurgents, but British officials believe there are Iranian Revolutionary Guard advisers with the Houthi rebel leadership.
Notwithstanding improved relations with Iran, the US and the UK are firmly supporting the Sunni side. Since April 14, there is a UN arms embargo on the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saudi coalition however is receiving a lot of heavy armament.
In March the Obama administration ended a freeze on weapon sales to Egypt that had been put in place following the Al-Sisi military coup in October of 2013. By doing so, a held-up sale of 12 F-16 aircraft, 20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits was cleared. In April, the sale of 356 Lockheed Martin AGM-114K/R3 Hellfire II missiles followed. Critics pointed to Egypt’s role in the Yemen war, but their voices were barely heard.
In July, the UK transferred Paveway IV precision guided bombs originally earmarked for the Royal Air Force to Saudi Arabia. “We are not participating directly in Saudi-led military operations in Yemen, but we are providing technical support, precision-guided weapons and exchanging information with the Saudi Arabian armed forces through pre-existing arrangements,” the Ministery of Defence said in response to written questions from the House of Lords.
The legality of the military intervention in Yemen is disputed. The Saudi’s justify their attack claiming that it was responding to request from its neighbour – Yemen’s president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. But Hadi’s legitimacy as ruler is shaky, legal experts say, as he had overstayed his term in office, resigned once (later to come back at it) and even fled the country. Stuart Casey-Maslen, international law researcher at the University of Pretoria, says that the ruling authority is “whoever controls the state – represented by territory and the armed forces… In this case that would be [the Houthis].” But according to Nathalie Weizmann of the Columbia Law School, international recognition remains an important broker in geopolitics. “The fact that most of the world is still referring to Hadi as the president is an indication of the legitimacy of his invitation” she says.
The way the military action is worked out however is a cruel breach of international humanitarian law. Apart from bombing military positions in Yemen – over 2000 Yemeni civilians are known to have been killed in the fighting so far, and, according to UN figures, a million have been forced in refuge – the Saudi-led coalition is blocking the majority of vessels approaching Yemeni ports. UN sources say that only 15% of the pre-crisis volume of imports is getting through, which is a disaster for a country with completely insufficient supplies of its own. Twenty million Yemenis, nearly 80% of the population, are in need of food, water and medical aid.
The blockade – which is also being enforced in the air and on land – is also stopping tankers carrying petrol, diesel and fuel oil, crippling the country’s electricity supply and forcing the mass closure of hospitals and schools. Most urgently, it has stopped water pumps working. For that reason, Human Rights Watch called the blockade a violation of the laws of war.
In a briefing to the Security Council in August, Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, declared himself shocked by the almost incomprehensible scale of human suffering he had witnessed in Yemen, from which he had just returned. He stressed that “airports and seaports need to remain open and be used for both commercial imports and humanitarian supplies without restriction.” He also noted “Disregard for human life on the part of all parties.” More specifically he stated that “Reports of air strikes and other shellings in and around the port of Al-Hudaydah earlier this week damaged the main lifelines for the import of basic goods: food, medicines and fuel. Those attacks are in clear contravention of international humanitarian law and are unacceptable.”
A shipping source in Al Hudaydah said the flow of ships into Yemen was down 75% compared with before the intervention. “Some ships have been docked in the past week or so, but many others have been stopped and it’s hard to see any pattern. Sometimes the coalition conducts a search and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it depends which navy is involved. In the past few days the Saudis have been more flexible, but the Egyptians have been rigid, not letting anything through,” the shipping source said.” There are four Egyptian navy ships participation in the naval blockade “to secure the strategic sea passage” as Egyptian military officials phrased it. After Saudi-Arabia, Egypt is the most important partner in the coalition against the Houthi’s. Egypt has announced that it will extend its participation through aerial and naval airstrikes. (Daily News Egypt, August 19, 2015 )
All this, however, seems to have escaped the Dutch government when it granted an export licence for radar and communication equipment for the Egyptian navy, to be built into four corvettes. In a letter to the Dutch parliament legitimizing the export licence, the Minister of Foreign Trade is reassuring that “although grave human rights violations take place in Egypt”and “Opposition, critics and NGO’s are suppressed” this specific equipment does not play a role and the Egyptian navy is not involved in human rights violations in Egypt.
Is it already questionable to sell arms to a military regime which tolerates grave human rights violations, ignoring the Yemen disaster is beyond imagination. Only once in the letter the minister refers to the Egyptian involvement in the Yemen blockade, saying that: “Egypt has also supported the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and has send navy ships to the Gulf of Aden due to the increased security risk.” We are talking humanitarian rights violations but the minister sees only a security risk.
Oxfam has started a petition urging world leader “do all they can for the people in Yemen including: (1) Push for an immediate and permanent cease fire. (2) Ensure access to essential food, fuel and medical supplies by re-opening air and sea routes. (3) Ensure that, in line with the Arms Trade Treaty, it is not sending arms and military support to any side in the conflict.” In the Netherlands, the Socialist Party has asked parliamentary questions on the deal.
In his speech to the Security Council, UN Under-Secretary-General O’Brien ended with a strong position: “There is no military solution to this conflict. Peace must be reached through a dialogue of words, not a dialogue of weapons. We, the international community, must match our actions with our words and take immediate measures to end the violence that is destroying the lives of millions of people across the country. We must get the parties to stop the fighting and return to the negotiation table before it is too late. Otherwise, there will be nothing left to fight for.”
We could not agree more. As a consequent step, the UN should put all parties in the conflict under an arms embargo.
Wendela de Vries 23/09/2015