Military intervention in Yemen: the international system in crisis

The United Nations should secure compliance with international law. Ongoing conflicts show that both the law and the UN have been subordinated to a single default position: military intervention.

Madeleine Rees
9 April 2015

Yemen is in the process of descending into full civil war. The horrendous violence of the Houthis against civilians is now being intensified, this time by  the Saudi lead military attacks on populated areas in Aden, Sanaa, Taez and Hodaida. In Aden, the number of civilian casualties continues to rise as groups of civilians take up arms against Houthi aggression, while warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition bomb rebel targets to the north.

The justification for this military intervention and massive escalation of violence was the request made by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi for support to "protect Yemen and the Yemeni people from the Houthi destructive aggression". The United Nations has been, in effect  a passive bystander while some States - the US, UK, Turkey,  Egypt, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, have come out in support. There is nothing in latest UN Security Council resolution to authorise use of force in this situation, nor in any of the previous Resolutions, on the contrary, they contain language which show what steps should be taken to actually uphold the National Dialogue so that there would be no recourse to supposed military  solutions.

In the absence of authority from the Security Council, force by another State can only be lawfully used in self-defence. Hadie invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter on collective self-defence to request military intervention. He probably did not have to, since there are claims of legality if intervention is made with the consent of the state on whose territory the force is being used. The latter is always murky, and in the case of Yemen particularly so since the legitimacy of Hadi’s Presidency has to be questioned.

It can be argued that Hadi’s official period in office ended in February 2014. Although he continued as Head of State during the expected transition period and was recognized as such internationally, he also officially resigned in January 2015 after he was forced out of Sanaa by Houthi military aggression. In February, he reclaimed the Presidency from his new position in the city of Aden. Since the launch of the military intervention, Hadi has been outside Yemen and is currently resident in Saudi Arabia. 

Basically the situation is this: a quasi legitimate president living in Saudi Arabia asks that state to go bomb and strafe his own country and his own people, and invokes collective security as justification. Yes, the Houthis have been targeting and killing civilians and controlling land with impunity. However, responding to violence with increased use of explosive weapons will only endanger more civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure - even when not directly targeted.

International law is also often subjugated to profits. Arms production and the international arms trade are lucrative industries that help perpetuate the systems that rely on military solutions to 'solve' all problems. The conflict in Yemen is no exception, with arms flooding into the country from all sides. The US is using the opportunity to reignite arms transfers to Egypt with an agreement to send Egypt Hellfire missiles (which have been used in populated areas to devastating effects in many conflicts in the region), while it is engaged in the bombing against the Houthis in Yemen.

The international community seems to think this is acceptable. That this conduct is "okay". The UN and the EU have criticised, but been silent about the consequences and what action they will take if there is no ceasefire and Saudi continues to bomb. That being "okay" is the result of the way international order has evolved since international law - human rights law in particular - was subjugated to the 'war on terror' post 9/11, and concepts of national security which are all about the use of force.

Military operations by the US and its partners are justified on the basis of collective self-defence, again pursuant to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. That claim relies on the premise that defensive force may be used by a 'victim' state against an armed attack by a non-state armed group located in the territory of another state if the territorial state is ‘unwilling or unable’ to prevent further attacks by that group. In Yemen's case it is unwilling or unable to prevent the violence of the Houthis and so Article 51 kicks in. However, this claim fundamentally broadens the traditional interpretation of international law. The justification has been used to attack ISIL in Iraq and latterly Syria. Now it's Yemen (though not to forget that the US was using drones to attack inside Yemen prior to this latest intervention). Louise Aramatsu of Chatham House and an expert in international law, is currently grappling with just this complex issue:  Does the standard of ‘unwilling and unable’ represent a security policy statement or international law?  What is its historical pedigree? What is the relationship between the standard and other treaty (UN Charter) and customary international law obligations, including in particular, the rules on state responsibility and the principle of non-intervention? Should the standard allow for the lawful use of force by states? 

Law is important, and its interpretation regulates what we can and cannot do. Without it we are lost, and are subjugated to the will of those who can wield the most violence. Right now it looks as if we are already there. We should be worried. It's not just about solidarity with the people of Yemen who are being subjected to the horrors of massive bombardments with no solutions being offered.

The bigger picture is terrifying. The Arab League is to create a joint regional military force (of Sunni states) so we should expect more random military operations in a highly fragile and militarized region, undermining not only the position of the UN Security Council, but more importantly endangering the viability of arguments opposing military intervention based on international law and in favour of negotiated settlements which ensure the broad participation of civil society, and in particular the real and meaningful engagement by women. Anything less than this will not lead to a sustainable solution.

This is serious. There is a crisis in the international system which has to be addressed and immediately. There are specific and simple steps to take based on international law: recalling the decisions of the International Court of Justice in Bosnia and Serbia, and the largely ignored Responsibility to Protect, there are various responsibilities falling on those states which have geographic proximity, political, economic  military or other influence, and they must use that influence to uphold the human rights of the domicile population by working with the state in question to secure them. It is simply not a solution to use military force to protect civilians or uphold their human rights.

One hopes and assumes that there is a flurry of activity at the UN and within the Arab League to find a peaceful solution. One hopes. But to date the solutions proffered -  be it in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria et al - are all about who to arm and which side to support, (not all are equally culpable, Germany has taken a strong position on Ukraine and ceased supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia) and the language in general is of military escalation. It has become the default position of international relations. A rational human being would know that there should be an immediate arms embargo on all parties - which obviously includes the international belligerents such as Saudi Arabia. There must be serious engagement by neighbouring States, including Iran, to stop the escalation into full on civil war and reconstruct the National Dialogue. Pressure can be brought, economic and political.

It could have happened in Syria, but the powers could not agree so the descent into hell happened. There is a Responsibility to Protect, it is both legal and moral. Entire populations must not be treated as pawns in somebody else's power games. All efforts must be taken to ensure there is a concrete roadmap for a political solution to the conflict. The military intervention must stop immediately. The UN was set up to keep peace, but right now the Security Council and member states are passively standing by as the conflict deteriorates, and risks becoming an open regional conflict.

Madeleine Rees will be speaking at the WILPF centenary conference in the Hague April 27th - 29th.



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