The extension of Yemen’s historic five-month truce has given many hope for peace, and for some it signals that an end to the conflict is on the horizon. Hans Grundberg, the country’s UN special envoy, clarified that the aims of the ceasefire are to allow for the provision of life-saving aid to alleviate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, and to create an environment conducive for peace talks involving all parties. The truce, which came into force on the 2nd of April at the start of the holy month of Ramadan has been the longest in the war’s history and is expected to last until October. So far, it has resulted in a reduction of 50% in internally displaced people as well as a 60% decline in civilian casualties.
Yemen’s civil war has been raging since 2014, when a minority Shia group of Houthi Rebels took over the capital, Sanaa, forcing the previous president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, to flee. Hadi soon returned with backing from a Saudi-led coalition of states. “Operation Decisive Storm” saw the installation of naval blockade, beginning a long line of blockades that effectively isolated the country. Iran has provided support for the Houthi Rebels in the north, supplying them with media exposure, weapons, and training. The big players in this war see it less as an internal conflict and more as a broader proxy war between the Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and the largely Shia Iran.
The conflict is further muddied by the several other regional and terrorist organisations operating in Yemen. The Southern Transitional Conflict (STC) is a UAE-backed group that wants to revive the country of South Yemen that existed before reunification in 1990. Additionally, the Lebanese Hezbollah has been reported to have trained Houthi rebels in the use of missiles and drones. The civil war in Yemen is a complicated and nuanced conflict, with numerous factions fighting for their own political, cultural, and religious agendas. The result has been a bloody and violent war that has created the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Yemen is starving. Years of military blockades, combined with international food shortages and the ongoing climate crisis has resulted in a nightmare scenario in which a staggering 24 million people are in dire need of humanitarian aid. Civil society in Yemen has been severely damaged by the ongoing war, with the healthcare system struggling to respond to the massive rates of injury and loss of life. The WHO has tracked over 2.3 million cases of cholera in the country, making it the largest outbreak in history. Only half the hospitals in the country are functional, and where there is healthcare there is often massive shortcomings.
Exacerbating these conditions is the economic crisis that the country is facing. When food is available, it is often completely unaffordable to those who need it the most. The currency, the Yemeni rial, has fallen to YER1700 per $1.00 in the southern part of the country and YER600 per $1.00 in the north. According to the World Bank, the Yemen economy has shrunk by an estimated 8.5 per cent in 2020, and an additional two per cent in 2021. These factors have resulted in a massive rise in the cost of everyday commodities, with bread costing six times more than usual. Even when food is available, it is still out of the reach of many Yemeni people.
The international response to this crisis has not met the needs of the Yemeni people. The distribution of aid has been notoriously difficult to police, with widespread corruption preventing supplies being delivered. In 2018, The World Food Programme announced that 1,200,000 kg of food was “diverted” from its original destination in the country’s capital, Sanaa. A CNN report found that aid was being sold in secondary markets. This deplorable practise was documented in a viral video which displayed the INGO’s logo. That same report detailed the use of aid by the Houthi rebels to gain political support and buy loyalty.
The civil war has seen many peace talks and treaties over seven years, none of which have yielded the desired outcome. Some, like the Stockholm agreement of 2018, provided pathways for resuming trade and recommencing peace talks, yet all parties failed to adhere to the terms of the agreement. Houthi rebels refused Saudi Arabia’s plans for a peace deal in 2021 on the basis that it did not include a complete lifting of the blockades surrounding Sanaa. Previous ceasefires have been abandoned by both sides, such as the one announced to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Also highly disappointing about the international community’s response to this crisis is the dissolution of Yemen’s Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) in 2021. The UN taskforce was primarily focused on documenting war crimes committed by all parties to the crisis, in other to ensure that any guilty parties were prosecuted. The group indicated that grave violations of international law took place, including arbitrary killings, torture, sexual and gender-based violence and indiscriminate shelling. The decision by the Human Rights Council not to renew the group’s mandate communicated what the GEE referred to in their final report as an “intolerable lack of political will” towards a just and peaceful resolution of the Yemen conflict.
The situation in Yemen is one that is often overshadowed by other conflicts, yet it remains the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Millions are starving and tens of thousands dying as a result of an arguably preventable, man-made war. Seven long and bloody years have proved that war is not the answer in Yemen. All sides are at fault for the havoc wreaked, and the only party that any foreign power should be providing support of any kind to is the 24 million men, women, and children who will die without it. The extension of the ceasefire is a historic first in Yemen and is a vital first step in ending the conflict, but more needs to be done to ensure that the next round of peace talks do not end up in broken promises and more casualties.
Now that there has been a temporary respite from fighting, it is vital to enact swift, comprehensive policy that heavily discourages the countries that have been previously embroiled in the conflict – Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, and the US, from providing more weapons, funds, or support to any of the Yemeni factions. By treating the conflict as a proxy war, the wellbeing of the people of Yemen has been side-lined. Although Iran denies involvement in the war, their clear support of the Houthi rebels must be publicly condemned. In 2019, the GEE found that the “legality” of arms sales to countries such as Saudi Arabia by western states such as the UK, the US, and France was questionable. The Arms Trade Treaty, which many of these states are signatory to, proposes to withhold the transfer of arms when there are suspicions that said arms may be used to carry out war crimes. Before substantial progress can be made in peace talks, the country must be demilitarized in all possible ways.
The priority should be to address the basic needs of the Yemeni people during the peace process. Funds must be raised as quickly as possible to prevent the famine from gaining momentum. In a highly disappointing move, two-thirds of all major UN projects in the country were forced to scale down or close entirely due to funding shortages. A devastating 8 million people also saw their food rations cut in half earlier in the year, with further reductions on the way. The distribution of aid must be closely monitored to prevent the theft of vital supplies. A country cannot survive on aid alone, so it is also necessary that the country’s economy be opened and set on path to growth. The current progress made in Sanaa, with the resumption of international trade and the flow of fuel through the port of Hudaydah, is a step in the right direction. However, the opening of transportation and trade routes needs to be widespread, both for humanitarian and economic reasons. An agreement must be made for movement between the besieged city of Taiz and other governorates. Finally, the GEE must be re-installed to continue their investigation into the war crimes committed by all factions and international actors in the war. To do anything less would be a gross injustice and a failure to the Yemeni people.
While this temporary peace provides much needed relief for citizens, there are already rumours of the Houthis regrouping, along with worrying reports of children being enrolled in military “summer camps” that could easily lead into a mass recruitment of child soldiers. UN officials are trying to extend the ceasefire on a bi-monthly basis, and although that may work in the short term, decisive action is needed now to create a solid foundation for lasting peace. The world cannot give up on the 30 million people in Yemen, nor can we allow those responsible for this crisis to escape punishment in a court of international law. Progress must be made now whilst there is opportunity, and before the ceasefire collapses and Yemen is plunged back into war.