Yemen war: the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis’

The Yemeni Crisis originated in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring when authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to concede power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. However, Mr. Hadi struggled with several problems after assuming presidency, such as attacks by jihadists, corruption, unemployment, food insecurity, and an ongoing separatist movement in the south. The Houthi movement (officially known as the Ansar Allah), an armed movement that champions the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority in Yemen, took advantage of Mr. Hadi’s problems by assuming control of the Saada province and neighboring areas in the northern areas. They were supported by many ordinary Yemenis, and assumed control over major areas of the country, including the capital Sanaa in early 2015. As a response, Saudi Arabia and eight other Arab states (governed by Sunni governments) began an air campaign supporting Mr. Hadi’s government to defeat the Houthis (which they believe are backed by Shia power Iran) sparking 4 years of military stalemate. 

Over the past year, however, these alliances have split, which has complicated efforts at adhering to a peace deal. In August 2019, fighting began between Saudi-backed government forces and the Southern Transition Council (STC), a separatist movement in the south backed by the United Arab Emirates. Although a power-sharing deal was reached in November, there was a sudden escalation in the conflict between the Houthis and the coalition-led forces, which renewed fighting on several lines and missile strikes. In April, the STC broke a peace deal signed with the Yemeni government to declare self-rule in Aden; while the Houthis rejected a ceasefire announced by Saudi Arabia in the same month.

The sheer impact of the war on Yemeni civilians has led the situation to be considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Although the UN verified the deaths of 7,700 civilians by March 2020 mostly due to the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, the death toll is believed to be much higher. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project said that it recorded over 100,000 deaths by October 2019, of which 23,000 were reported in 2019 alone; and about 3.65 million people have been displaced from their homes. 

The direst consequence of the war is a famine that began in November 2017, when the Houthis launched a ballistic missile to Riyadh, prompting the Saudi coalition to tighten its blockade of Yemen. In June 2018, the coalition launched an offensive to capture Hudaydah, a port city that is the major supply for food for almost two-thirds of the population. An estimated 20 million people needed help in securing food, of which 10 million were deemed “one step away from famine” by the United Nations. The impact on young children was especially severe – an estimated 30,000 children die every year from severe malnutrition. At present, half of Yemeni children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished, and 1.1 million pregnant women are anemic, which will likely begin a ‘cycle of malnutrition’ and chronic health consequences for their children. There was also a dramatic reduction in vaccination rates after the war began, which led to thousands of deaths of children from preventable diseases, such as diphtheria and measles. This prompted Lise Grande (UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen) to warn that if the war doesn’t end soon, “we are nearing an irreversible situation and risk losing an entire generation of Yemen’s young children.” 

 The healthcare situation was dire even without the added pressure of the pandemic, as an estimated 18 million lack access to adequate sanitation and clean water. This perpetrated the largest cholera outbreak in Yemen, with 3,895 related deaths since October 2016 and a suspected 2.2 million cases. Dishearteningly, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated the healthcare crisis. With only half of the country’s 3,500 medical facilities operational, an estimated 20 million lack access to adequate healthcare, while there is an acute shortage of basic equipment like masks and gloves. Additionally, humanitarian aid has dwindled this year, as donor funding drastically fell, and the UN was forced to close over a third of its humanitarian programmes due to a lack of funding. This year, severe malnutrition rose by 10% in the southern parts, and 15% among children under the age of 5.

Additionally, both the coalition and the Houthi movement have conducted grave human rights violations since the war began in March 2015, of which many constitute war crimes. Firstly, all parties involved in the conflict have used child soldiers under the age of 18, of which many were under the age of 15. A 2019 report by the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen documents that 3,034 children recruited over the course of the war, 64% were recruited by the Houthis. Secondly, Human Rights Watch documents widespread reports of arbitrary detentions and torture and sexual violence of detainees – in a September report, the UN Group verified 12 cases of violence against 5 women, 6 men, and a young boy. Underreporting of sexual violence in the course of detentions is described as ‘inevitable’ in the report, due to stigma against victims.

The coalition has conducted at least 90 unlawful airstrikes, including 5 deadly attacks on Yemeni fishing boats since 2018, which killed 47 fishermen, including 7 children. In August 2019, multiple airstrikes were carried out on a Houthi detention center, which killed and wounded at least 200 people in the deadliest attack since the beginning of the war. The coalition has also blocked humanitarian aid from reaching civilians, by seizing fuel needed to power generators to hospitals and stopping goods from entering Houthi-controlled seaports.

A 2019 Human Rights Watch investigation finds evidence that Houthi forces have used unlawful antipersonnel mines, anti-vehicle mines, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the western coast, resulting in hundreds of civilian injuries and deaths. At least 140 civilians were killed by landmines in just the Hodeidah and Taizz regions since January 2018. This has disproportionately affected the livelihood of farmers, whose crops and clean water supply were affected by landmines planted in farmland, villages, and wells.

An underrepresented aspect is the widespread human rights violations committed against journalists, again from all sides involved in the conflict. The OHCHR has documented 357 cases of abuse against journalists since the war began, included 28 killings, 45 physical assaults, and 184 arbitrary arrests and detentions. Since April 2020, there were 3 verified cases of arbitrary detentions and 3 physical assaults; on 11 April, the Specialised Criminal Court in Sanaa sentenced 4 to death on the charge of (paraphrased) “weakening the defense of the homeland and sabotaging public security”. During their 5-year detention, they were allegedly denied family visits, access to an attorney, and healthcare. 

Unfortunately, the process of ensuring accountability for all involved parties has been mainly unsuccessful in the international sphere. The UN Security Council has only wielded its sanctions against the Houthis, despite extensive documentation by human rights organisations of war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition. Additionally, several countries including the US, France, and Canada sold arms to the coalition throughout the war. In October 2018, the murder of a Saudi journalist provoked scrutiny of the coalition’s human rights violations, leading to review or suspension of arms sales to the coalition by Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, and Germany; while the UK similarly agreed to suspend arms sales in June 2019. However, the US, Canada, France, and Australia notably continue to supply weapons and military equipment, risking their complicity in the ongoing humanitarian crisis.


Yemen crisis – what you need to know:

Yemen crisis – Why is there a war?:

Yemen on brink of losing entire generation of children to hunger:

Yemen events of 2019:

Human rights violations against journalists: 

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Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik