Yemen in the frame, again

The toll of violence in Yemen continues unabated—if largely unreported. And unless the international community engages with its causes and the local parties, so it will remain.

Aaron Edwards
28 April 2014

Recent drone strikes and aerial bombardment by Yemeni forces against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in which 55 militants were killed, highlight the daily death and destruction in one of the world’s failed states. For months the murder of Yemeni soldiers and civilians has passed largely unnoticed by western media preoccupied with chaos in Syria, instability in Afghanistan and Russian moves in Ukraine.

Yet continuing violence in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, has severe repercussions for international security. In the background the United States plays an as yet unacknowledged role bolstering the expertise and fighting power of the Yemeni armed forces, while supporting a project of governance reform. But AQAP tends to gain ground when punitive operations go wrong—as with the drone strike on a wedding party last year in which up to 15 non-combatants were killed. And if the reform process fails a revitalised threat to western states is a real prospect.

Harsh operations against militants inimical to government designs for the southern parts of Yemen have a long history. Half a century ago British troops saw action in the unforgiving mountains of South Yemen, battling tribesmen from the rebellious Radfani confederation. However adept they were at pulverising knots of dissidents with millions of bullets, countless tonnes of ordnance and thousands of rockets, fired from advanced Hunter jet aircraft, the uprising continued. By 1967 it had led to Britain’s withdrawal and the advent of a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ government, which would remain in power until the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990.


The British weren't any more successful: the high commissioner of Aden, Sir HumphreyTrevelyan, waves to their departing helicopters in November 1967. Wikimedia / photographer unknown.

Only candidate

Today, the government of Abu Rabbo Mansour Hadi has resorted to the same coercive tactics, with the strikes against AQAP strongholds this month. Hadi has been in power since February 2012 when he won a presidential election—albeit as the only candidate---replacing Yemen’s long-time ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been ousted by swelling protests triggered by other Arab uprisings across the region. Backed by the US, Hadi has sought to bring to heel a range of militant opposition groups, from Houthi separatists in the north to a looser tribal uprising in the vast emptiness of the Hadhramaut governate in the east, and to defeat the armed challenge posed by AQAP.

Notwithstanding the Islamist violence, vibrant secessionism in the south poses the most significant challenge to state stability in the longer term. And it has many faces. The tribal militancy in Hadhramaut governorate has proven the most problematic boil for Hadi’s government to lance, necessitating the creation of a federally autonomous region. The problem is nothing new: the adventurer Freya Stark pondered in her celebrated The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936) “what a pacifist would make of the Buqri family, or of any of the merchants of Hadhramaut who, after a life of money-making, retire to an old age of guerrilla warfare in their valley”. And she wrote. “If the human race really longs so intensely for peace, there must be some anomaly here.”

Elsewhere in the south, other armed groups pose equally significant challenges. In al-Dhale governorate the 33 Armoured Brigade of Yemen’s armed forces has been engaged in large-scale operations since December 2013. At a cost of 40 civilian deaths (27 in just one incident), many wounded and thousands displaced, little has been achieved. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, immediately condemned the attacks and called for unrestricted humanitarian access.

In February, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2140 urging all those involved in violence to “end the conflicts and comply with their obligations under applicable international humanitarian and human rights law”. The motion stressed the “need for parties to take all required measures to avoid civilian casualties” and to “respect and protect the civilian population”. Turning its attention to non-state actors, the UN called for renewed effort to tackle terrorist activity, the proliferation of small arms and recruitment of child soldiers.

Lacklustre response

Beyond a fresh round of sanctions on those designated as “spoilers” of Yemen’s transition, however, no further action has been taken. This lacklustre response has drawn heavy criticism from some Yemenis, pointing to the futility of asset freezes and travel bans in a land where it is difficult to apply the rigour of the rule of law.

Addressing the world’s media after the Security Council meeting, the secretary general’s special adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, observed: ‘With this resolution, the council is supporting the legitimate aspirations of the Yemenis, including the youth, who fought and continue to fight for deep and meaningful change.” The point of the resolution was to express unqualified UN support for the Yemeni government, following the National Dialogue Conference.

The UN is not alone in wishing to see an end to the violence. NGOs like the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International have protested at infringements of universal human rights and international humanitarian law. Western governments, while supportive of the political transition in train, continue to call for a more concerted effort on security sector reform—so Yemeni forces comply with the rule of law when employing lethal force.

The west should avoid direct intervention, military or otherwise, especially in light of al-Qaeda’s proven resilience across the middle east. It is not possible to resolve the systemic crisis in Yemen by coercion alone and heavy-handedness might well risk driving its battle-weary people further into the arms of AQAP. As history shows, the belief that modern states can defeat terrorism without addressing the underlying social and political causes is misguided.

That armed opposition groups have consistently evaded the clutches of states desperate to establish order in a country that has known little but crisis throughout its turbulent past should not come as a surprise. Only if the international community engages the people of Yemen in an equal partnership, to address longstanding determinants of violence, can a sustainable solution be found.

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