by Abdulrashid Alfaqih
At the beginning of 2017, I left Yemen with my colleague and wife, Radhya Almutawakel, to represent the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights in an international advocacy tour. This tour included the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and a number of other European countries. Back then, we thought the world’s lack of attention to the humanitarian tragedy in Yemen was due to insufficient (or non-existent) information on what this war did to Yemeni civilians. However, during the tour, this belief gradually changed, as we conducted dozens of meetings in several capitals and cities with representatives of governments, decision-makers, and legislators. Our discussions were backed by reports and investigative field research done by our field team across different areas of Yemen, with the support of experts in international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Those reports had documented violations committed by all parties to the conflict.
Our goal from this advocacy tour was to contribute, along with the humanitarian community, to creating a positive impact that mitigates the effect of war on civilians, and to draw attention to the tragedy that millions of Yemeni civilians face: being caught in an interminable conflict with no prospect for peace–a conflict undertaken by parties that deal with Yemen as a country with no inhabitants. That is why they keep on gambling in a zero-sum game, where goals are exclusively scored against Yemeni civilians and their lives, creating one of the largest humanitarian tragedies the world has witnessed, where armed groups became stronger as Yemen got weaker.
The war in Yemen has pushed the humanitarian situation to a condition far worse than the most pessimistic expectations or warnings; Yemen is now experiencing one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. This happened as a direct and inevitable result of intentional politics and acts undertaken by the parties to the conflict.
On 17 November 2017, directors of WHO, UNICEF and WFP issued in a joint statement: “More than 20 million people, including over 11 million children, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. At least 14.8 million are without basic healthcare and an outbreak of cholera has resulted in more than 900,000 suspected cases”.
In a different statement delivered to the UN security council on 18 August 2017, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien said: “17 million Yemenis do not know if or where they will get their next meal; nearly 7 million are facing the threat of famine; also severe malnutrition threatens the lives of around 400,000 children; and with the decline in supplies, price of food items increases dramatically; putting thousands more at risk.”
He added that “today, millions of people in Yemen are facing a triple tragedy: the spectre of famine, the world’s largest ever single-year cholera outbreak, and the daily deprivation and injustice of a brutal conflict that the world is allowing to drag on and on. All totally preventable, avoidable and treatable. This human tragedy is deliberate and wanton – it is political tragedy, but with will and with courage, which are both in short supply, it is stoppable.”
On 20 December 2017, Oxfam warned that “Yemen is being pushed ever closer to famine after 1,000 days of a brutal war, exacerbated by a crippling blockade of its key northern ports which is starving its people of food, fuel and medicine.”
Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB Chief Executive, added: “For 1,000 days, huge amounts of sophisticated modern weapons have pounded Yemen, and on top of that we are now witnessing a Medieval siege where mass starvation is being used as a weapon of war. Cutting off vital food, fuel and medicine to a population is never justified and should never be tolerated. It is tactic that is devoid of any sense of decency, any sense of morality and any sense of humanity.”
Since early 2014, Yemen has witnessed small battles between the Houthis on one side and government forces and government-aligned political and tribal groups on the other. The conflict entered a new stage when the Houthis seized control of the Yemeni capital Sana’a on 21 September 2014, pushing Yemen into a large-scale civil war between the Houthis, government forces loyal to President Hadi, and other armed groups.
On March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia and eight other Arab countries launched a large-scale military operation aiming to support the government of President Hadi against the Houthis and their ally, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who was killed by the Houthis in early December 2017, after he declared the termination of their alliance).
In over three years of war, Yemen has been an open field for horrific violations, floods of blood, tragedies, and destruction. Such violations have included indiscriminate aerial and ground attacks, incidents of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture, summary executions, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, the targeting of schools and hospitals, and the use of land mines. Restrictions were also imposed on freedom of movement and the delivery of humanitarian aid and basic goods. Freedom of the press was also severely undermined. All parties to the conflict were directly involved in these violations, including the Saudi and UAE-led coalition and the Houthi forces.
In a meeting with a number of organizations on the situation in Yemen and the role of the US administration, an American diplomat detailed the scale of humanitarian assistance provided by his government to Yemen. When I got the chance to speak, I told him: “The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is not the result of a natural disaster, and we are not conducting a meeting with a relief organization. The crisis in Yemen is the result of certain acts and violations committed by parties to the conflict, especially your allies (Saudi Arabia and the UAE), and such violations are repeated on a daily basis. Your government can play a role far more significant than providing aid, while acknowledging its importance, through putting pressure on its allies to stop breaching international humanitarian law and thus, limiting the scale of this tragedy. Your country is a permanent member at the UN Security Council, a key player within the international community and its different institutions. In this regard, it has an obligation towards different world crises, including Yemen’s.”
During the dozens of meetings in our journey, we kept on reminding officials from the American, French, and British administrations of things that we had thought were common sense—and recognized principles of international humanitarian law—such as the right of civilian victims to an investigation, their right to receive humanitarian aid as well as basic commercial and consumer goods, and their right to freely move and escape the hell of war. We kept on reminding them that all civilian victims across the globe should be supported and treated with common standards, and that perpetrators of violations should be confronted and pressured, regardless of their identities, wealth, or geopolitics.
The United States, by engaging in international mechanisms, has taken the lead among the voices that condemned the violations of the Assad regime and many other rights abusers. This is definitely positive and important, however, it completely ignores the same kind of horrific violations when they are committed by its allies in Yemen. Far worse than that, it has, through diplomatic interventions across the world from New York to Geneva, acted to prevent accountability measures from being undertaken against its spoiled allies (Saudi Arabia and the UAE). The US has also led efforts towards establishing international commissions of inquiry for Syria, Libya, and other crises, yet it completely blocks any attempts to establish an international commission of inquiry in Yemen—or, indeed, any efforts aimed at achieving any form of accountability.
The American, British, and French governments have demonstrated a clear double standard in their responses to different humanitarian crises: their policy, in practice, is that violators not aligned with them should be prosecuted through various means and mechanisms, while allied regimes which commit the same violations should be shielded from accountability.
Accordingly, the international mechanisms–the United Nations chief among them–that are supposed to work on protecting human rights, upholding justice, and maintaining peace, are transformed into malfunctioning bodies: mechanisms that are used by the powerful states to reinforce their dominance and protect their interests and allies.
This is what raises questions among victims in our communities about the usefulness, function, and impact of such mechanisms. Those victims ask about the responsibility of human rights movements and of human rights lawyers and experts. The global human rights movement and its supporters should look for genuine answers to these questions, which are continuously raised by victims of human rights violations in our countries.
For three years, Yemen has been shelled with huge quantities of modern weapons. The source countries of these weapons are the US, UK, Brazil, and Italy, as documented by the Mwatna Organization for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.
Human rights violations have been documented by credible organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as by our organization, the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights. These organizations have presented, through their reports, precise information on the horrific violations committed in Yemen, and the impact of such violation on the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
However, those steering the rudder of the international community—led by the US, France, and the UK–decided to continue ignoring the humanitarian tragedy in Yemen, to conclude more arms deals, and to prioritize political interests over a commitment to human rights, justice, and peace. They have decided to block all efforts towards achieving accountability, including efforts to establish an international commission of inquiry and demands to include the Saudi-led Coalition in the 2016 list of shame (which is issued annually by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on violations of children’s rights in armed conflicts).
In various mild forms–and after three years of efforts and counter-efforts–the UN Human Rights Council, in its thirty-sixth session, has finally authorized the High Commissioner to establish a team of experts to conduct thorough investigations into allegations of violations of human rights by all warring parties in Yemen. The findings of this team of experts shall be reported to the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council session to be held in September of 2018. On October 6, 2017, as serious violations of Yemen’s children continued and human rights demands persisted, the United Nations included all parties to the conflict in Yemen in the UN’s annual list of shame. The Saudi-led Coalition, Ansar Allah (the Houthis), groups loyal to President Hadi, and al-Qaeda have all been included.
Spoilt by the US support, Saudi Arabia continued to violate the rights of millions of civilians, waging blind raids, killing and wounding thousands, destroying infrastructure, closing ports such as Sana’a Airport and the Hodeidah seaport, and imposing more restrictions on humanitarian, commercial, and consumer goods.
Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, have repeatedly called for a total ban on arms transfers to countries and parties involved in the Yemen war due to the use of those weapons in war crimes. Although such violations started immediately after the Saudi-led Coalition’s intervention began—and have continued to this day–the flow of arms has not stopped, and new arms deals have been signed with Saudi Arabia. Whenever Yemeni civilians hear the news of these deals, they start worrying as they will be the target and the victims.
The actions of the Trump administration effectively serve radical groups in our societies on both sides of the religious divide: Sunni jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Ansar al-Sharia, as well as pro-Iranian Shiite jihadists such as Hezbollah, the Houthi group, Popular Mobilization, and other groups.
The radical groups in our societies no longer need to employ their hackneyed image of America as an agent of evil because, today, the American administration’s actions towards the Middle East and the world at large is painting a very bad picture. Broadly speaking, the image of the United States of America is not different from that of North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other notorious regimes.
On the side lines of our meetings with US officials in New York and Washington, we discussed a great deal about the experience of the American nation. We raised questions about the nature of the American system, its strengths, weaknesses, and global roles, as well as the institutionalization of the state and the reality of its commitments to democracy and human rights. Every day of the Trump’s administration’s tenure provides shocking answers to these questions–answers that undermine the image of America and the role it plays in such issues as democracy, human rights, peace, and justice. Thomas Friedman raised some of these questions in his article “Trump’s United American Emirate” published by the New York Times on 31 May 2017.
As a Middle Eastern advocate for human rights, who is interested in the transformations and policies that affect peace, human rights, and justice, and as a believer in democracy, human rights, justice, peace and openness, I believe that if think tanks, research centers, schools of humanities, and US policy-makers study the policies and actions of the Trump administration, they will come to the conclusion that it (the Trump administration) is an actual threat to the American national security. The Trump administration is the biggest catalyst for generating hatred and perpetuating the demonization of the US in the minds of the people of the societies whose crises and tragedies this administration effectively exacerbates–while propping up unpopular regimes that deny their peoples’ aspirations and interests.
Thanks to the Trump administration, liberal civil elites, radical groups, and the general public share the same or almost the same perception of America’s negative roles in various crises in the Middle East and around the world. It has escalated US sponsorship of repressive and corrupt regimes whose human rights violations and military adventures have exacerbated instability in the region and the world, and have nurtured the hatred in which extremist groups flourish. Since taking office in the US, Trump has inaugurated a new era of pampering repressive and corrupt regimes and colluding with them in the oppression of their citizens and civil society groups who are working for the promotion of democracy, human rights, citizenship, the rule of law, peace, and openness.
In the course of a year of Trump’s tenure, the Yemeni people and their country have received a large share of the shrapnel of his adventurous policies. Yemen has been the easiest battlefield in which Trump attempted to show off artificial success of his electoral promises. In the framework of counter-terrorism, Trump inaugurated his foreign policy at the start of 2017 with a military landing in Yekla in central Yemen. The operation has stirred a lot of controversy about its objectives, results, and casualties.
The Mwatana Organization for Human Rights has documented the killing of at least 32 civilians–including 16 children and 6 women–and the injury of 10, including five children, in eight drone strikes and US military operations in 2017. Dozens of civilian casualties of US military operations in Yemen have been waiting for justice for years.
Yemenis have been among the citizens of six countries targeted by Trump’s travel ban, which has been contested by US human rights groups and civil society organizations. From the first moment of its declaration, the decision created negative effects on civil society activists, Yemeni students, expatriates, and their families. The decision has cleft a chasm between the Trump administration and the American society and its institutions.
Yemen has also been one of the most prominent spheres of the Trump administration’s political escalation against Iran. The Saudi-led Coalition has exploited this escalation against Iran as a cover and justification for stepping up its attacks diverting attention away from its appalling violations in Yemen. In 2017, the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights has documented 88 attacks by the Saudi-led Coalition warplanes, which killed as many as 356 civilians, including 159 children and 45 women, and injured at least 288 civilians, including 107 children and 58 women. The airstrikes targeted civilian objects and infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, archaeological sites, markets, wedding parties, and funerals. The ongoing blockade has severely restricted the flow of basic commercial goods and humanitarian assistance to Yemen. Moreover, the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all documented that the Saudi-led Coalition used US-made bombs in attacks against civilians and civilian objects, including hospitals and educational facilities.
Yemenis followed Trump’s visit to Riyadh and the news of the massive arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia with concern. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of weapons in the world, while the bodies of Yemenis, their villages, cities, homes, schools, hospitals, monuments, roads, and markets are the main targets of these weapons.
According to the UN and international humanitarian organizations operating in Yemen, these weapons weaken Yemen and its people; whereas they strengthen armed groups and buttress their rhetoric of violence. Moreover, US diplomacy, in conjunction with that of Britain and France, has worked effectively in various international forums to undermine the efforts of human rights groups to account for and investigate violations in Yemen and to prevent any international pressure to curb human rights violations by Saudi Arabia and its allies—or by other parties to the war in Yemen.
On 23 June 2017, the Associated Press published an investigative report exposing dozens of incidents of torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention in a network of secret prisons established and financed by the United Arab Emirates, a US ally in its war against terror. The news agency confirmed that US troops had taken part in the interrogations of these detainees. Following this report, Amnesty International requested an immediate investigation of the allegations that US forces are involved in interrogating detainees and receiving information that may have been extracted under torture. This could put the United States in the position of complicity in these crimes in accordance with the provisions of international law.
On 25 October 2017, the US Treasury Department issued a list of individuals and entities accused of supporting and financing terrorism. Adel Abdu Faree (Abu al-Abbas), a leader of one of the armed groups fighting against the Houthi group in Taiz, in central Yemen, is included in the list. The UAE supports and finances Abu al-Abbas among other armed extremist Sunni groups in Aden, Taiz, and other areas in Yemen in the context of the war against the Houthis. These groups have carried out dozens of public executions of civilian dissidents. The support of the UAE and other members of the Coalition has helped these groups to strengthen their grip over areas of Yemen loyal to the government of President Hadi. But it is these groups that represent the real threat to the future of Yemen, the region, and the entire world.
In all the meetings we held with organizations, institutions, think tanks, universities, opinion writers, experts, and officials inside and outside of the US, everyone’s fingers pointed at the Trump administration as the one responsible for hindering and disrupting the processes of justice, peace and human rights in relation to the Yemen crisis as well as other crises. We could see this loud and clear in our meetings with American officials, dressed in elegant blazers and seated behind first-world classy desks. Endorsing the brutal logic of armed extremists and black market arms dealers—as opposed to the modern values of human rights, justice, and coexistence–these officials seek to counter the efforts of the human rights movement to achieve justice for the innocent Yemeni people.
Trump claims that he acts on behalf of the American people, their values and aspirations. Whether he is right or wrong, this is a question for the future to decide.
The future will also have to answer several pressing questions that impose themselves on a person like me, who chose to work for human rights, justice, peace, and the values of coexistence and openness while watching the world through Yemen’s window. Meanwhile, the governments of the first world, such as the Trump administration, treat the people of our societies as though our lives were worth less than those of their own citizens, and treat the countries of our region–and its bleeding crises–as a video game functioning on the basis of numerical equations that mean nothing to the game-players.
Abdulrashid Alfaqih is Executive Director of the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights. (firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: ralfaqih)