Since 2014 Yemen has been the tragic theatre of a proxy war that has expanded across the backdrop of decades of modern history.
The Houthis are a tribal movement from Yemen based on the Zaydi sect of Shi’a Islam. This sect branched off during the Umayyad period in 740AD, at a time when Zayd bin Ali led an uprising from which his followers, such as the Yemeni Houthis, felt that Zayd bin Ali should have been the rightful Caliph. Hence the movement became known as the Zaydi.
As a result, the Zaydi’s found themselves in opposition to a number of Sunni factions in the region and came up against both the Wahhabis and the Ottomans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Not only is this important historical background, but it gives a real sense of the deeper origins of the conflict.
In the early part of the 20th century, Yemen was still a nation divided between North and South Yemen that operated as separate states. Their unification came in 1990 and the Republic of Yemen was formed.
The current crisis officially began in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring. Many Yemenis today still cite dissatisfaction at the outcome of revolt as one of the reasons for the ongoing conflict. However, the story goes much further back than this. The Houthis have been in revolt for over a decade, launching their first uprising against Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2004 and successfully taking control of the north mountain region of Yemen. On the back of the Arab Spring in 2011, Saleh was removed and replaced by his deputy Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi – a Sunni who had the backing of the Saudis.
A few years later and Saleh and the Houthis were once again aligned, the result of which was the taking of Sana’a and subsequent fall of his replacement Hadi on 2014 in what looked like retribution.
Fast forward to 2018 and the years of infighting have now led to so much more tragedy. Latest estimates suggest that at least 10,000 people have been killed in the war and around 8,873 wounded. The war in Yemen is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with, according to the UN, an unfathomable 22 million people in need of humanitarian aid and protection.
Human Rights Violations
The protracted crisis has also brought with it a number of serious human rights violations. Reports from human rights NGOs say that within the Yemen war there have been at least seven areas in which international law has been seriously violated, including: unlawful airstrikes, use of landmines, use of cluster munitions, violations of women and girls’ rights, the use of child soldiers, the blocking of humanitarian aid including medical assistance, terrorism, torture and arbitrary detention.
Upholding human rights within conflict must be prioritised. Violations have been seen on all sides and have included some unlawful Saudi airstrikes. Saudi then pledged to the UN that they would limit these strikes, but there are still casualties from these strikes.
Houthi forces were found to be carrying out indiscriminate artillery shelling in Taizz, which the OHCHR called “unrelenting”. These attacks took place over three long days in May 2017 and saw Houthi forces kill at least 12 civilians, including 4 children and wounded 29, including 10 children.
In addition, Human Rights Watch recorded the use of landmines in at least six governorates and investigated 10 incidents of the use of landmines by Houthi forces. Not only were landmines used by the Houthis, but anti-personnel mines, which are specifically designed to target individuals and inflict human casualty. Yemen is a part of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which outlawed the use of anti-personnel mines, meaning indiscriminate use of these by Houthi-Saleh forces is in direct contravention of law.
The Houthi forces and the Gulf-backed Yemeni forces have indiscriminately detained and tortured people during the war. Reports from former prisoners tell stories of being kept in underground cells, abuse, and some very brutal torture techniques. Houthi-Saleh forces have also clamped down hard on dissent, crushing any opportunity of free speech or free press.
‘Houthi-Saleh forces have cracked down on dissent, closing several dozen NGOs, carrying out enforced disappearances, torturing detainees, and arbitrarily detaining numerous activists, journalists, tribal leaders, political opponents, and members of the Baha’i community.’ (Human Rights Watch, 2018)
The UN spoke out in strong condemnation of the use of child soldiers in Yemen’s war, with the UN secretary general including the Houthis and the opposition forces on his ‘list of shame’ for 2016. In 2017 child soldiers were an estimated one-third of all fighters. The UN put forward an action plan to end the use of child soldiers, however due to the continuation of the conflict this action plan has not yet been put into place.
Yemen, Iran, Saudi and the US
Prior to their involvement in the current conflict, Iran and Yemen had a somewhat fickle alliance. Despite both having strong ties to Shi’ism, Yemen and Iran had a number of disputes before 2015 including one during the fall of the Shah, and again over Yemen’s proximity to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the first Gulf war.
After a period of cooperation in the early 2000’s the Yemeni-Iranian relationship soon deteriorated. With the backdrop of what looked like a new Gulf war emerging, alliances shifted once again. Despite wide public support for the Houthis, Yemen experts such as Helen Lackner have said that its practical involvement was far more questionable. Now however, Houthi-Iranian ties seem to have been ramped up a notch. Although, they have also been caught in the cross-hairs of a war of words between the US and Iran, and once again seem to be involved as the role of pliable proxy.
The recent Houthi attack on Saudi oil tankers is a clear example of this has also been described as a possible way for Iran to gain a firmer hold over the very vital Bab al-Mandab and Hormuz Straits. But while tensions between the US and Iran rise, human rights violations are still occurring on a daily basis in Yemen. The international community must make it a priority to ensure that these desist and that the Yemeni people at the very least consistently have access to all aid that is available to them.