Yemen and the Responsibility to Protect

Journalist and former UN official Patricia Leidl on how the world has failed in its responsibility to protect the people of Yemen

Yemen and the Responsibility to Protect
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Just over 15 years ago, when the world was a very different place, all member states of the United Nations came together to endorse a new doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P.

The aim? To prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The Responsibility to Protect was based upon the underlying premise that sovereignty entails a responsibility to protect all populations from mass atrocity, crimes and human rights violations.

But that was then. If ever there were a responsibility to protect, Yemen would certainly qualify. So where is the moral and political leadership necessary to do so? As all of us are aware, the geopolitical landscape has changed greatly since 2005.

I first met Hannah in 2012 outside of a coffee shop just as the sun was setting behind the splendor of Sana’a’s Old City. She didn’t know how old she was but looked around 8 years of age.

Hannah was the second youngest of nine siblings and had been sent out into the streets to beg from the few foreigners who were still working in Yemen. The Arab Spring, which had begun with so much promise, had already shifted to something far darker.

In Yemen, where the protests were initially far more peaceful and inclusive than elsewhere in the Arab world, foreign counter-revolutionaries began funding armed factions as Abdullah Saleh sought every means possible to hang onto power. As with almost all revolutions, the Arab ‘spring’ was to hearken in a winter of unrest, oppression and armed conflict, which was to prove even worse than the dictatorship that preceded it.

From my perch in the all-but-empty Movenpick Hotel, I would fall asleep lulled by the sound of gunfire, shelling, and wedding fireworks.

It was a strange juxtaposition. After work I would swim in the hotel’s empty infinity pool and gaze down at the city as it was quite literally being torn apart. It was a peculiar time and one that I will never forget.

It was little Hannah though, who brought home to me the dire situation of most Yemenis: the hunger, the want, the lack of basic services and of simple reproductive health care; The fertility rates that guaranteed an exploding population even as the country slipped further into famine.

Hannah’s father had been killed during the demonstrations. He wasn’t a protestor, but had been caught in the crossfire. My friend Thea, who spoke fluent Arabic, explained that Hannah’s mother had begun beating her since her father had died; that the stresses of the revolution; her husband’s death and ensuing deep poverty had left Hannah’s mother unhinged and unable to cope.

When I gave Hannah whatever money I had, she folded her tiny body into mine and wept.

I left Yemen a few weeks later. Many years have gone by but I am still unable to erase the memory of the little girl from my consciousness.

I wonder if she is still alive. Her family was already barely hanging on even back then. But the intervening years have brought nothing but catastrophe for the people of Yemen.

For me, Hannah is the embodiment of that other Yemen that never makes it into the headlines: the one that is made up of real people, of the real suffering of real individuals to whom we owe the responsibility to protect.

Needless to say, we are failing miserably.

Forced to live under despots, religious fanatics and constant war waged by foreign powers, they are the forgotten ones. They don’t care about ideology. They care about survival. More than anything, the war in Yemen is a war on the poor.

According to the UN, eight million Yemenis already depend on emergency food aid. The organization says that could soon rise to 14 million—exactly one half of Yemen’s population. The United Nations has declared only two famines during the last 30 years—one in Sudan and the other in Somalia. According to officials, Yemen is set to become the third.

And as with all proxy wars, the conflict in Yemen is incredibly complex and is characterized by multiple actors all intent on pursuing their own agendas. Generally speaking, the more complex a conflict, the less likely a resolution and the more likely that all of those involved will perpetrate gross human rights abuses.

In this, Yemen is no different than the conflicts in Darfur, the DR Congo, Afghanistan and other wars than have grinded on for many, many years. To quote an old Afghan proverb, “ There are no good men among the living.”

All are guilty.

According to the New York Times, aid workers say that in Houthi-held areas, commanders “level illegal taxes at checkpoints and frequently try to divert international relief aid to the families of soldiers, or to line their own pockets.”

The United Nations maintains that delayed visas, retracted work permits and interference in their work stymie aid workers in the Houthi held areas.

Nevertheless it is the Saudi-led coalition that have imposed a raft of punitive economic measures aimed at undercutting the Houthi rebels who control northern Yemen.

But these actions — including blockades, import restrictions and the withholding of the salaries of more than a million civil servants — have laid to waste to an already tottering economy. They are driving millions into outright starvation.

Reporters tell of supermarkets stuffed with goods. Nevertheless, a huge proportion of Yemenis can’t afford to purchase anything.

The end result? Famine and cholera. Both are entirely preventable, but no one will claim the responsibility to protectt. And why would they?

We now live in an era where the strongman—the autocrat and the despot—is once more on the ascendant. All over the world, in the United States, Brazil, the Balkans, The Philippines, India and Africa, nations are jettisoning the dream of a pluralistic democracy in favour of a hyper-masculine populism, nationalism, and hate.

The world’s only superpower is on the wane and now favours the very types of government it used to condemn—at least publicly. In many respects the America that we are now seeing is in fact the real deal. The foreign policy that propped up dictators from Duarte to Pinochet and that resulted in the illegal invasion of Iraq is now exposed for what it really is: What once festered in the shadows is out in the open.

When Donald Trump cited the 110 billion dollar Saudi arms deal as the reason his government would not take action following the sadistic murder of Jamal Khashoggi, he was essentially admitting that the corruption of America’s foreign policy by the arms trade with the Saudis was not only okay, but completely acceptable.

The US has always ignored Saudi Arabia as the epicenter and source of Islamic extremism worldwide—even when it discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers that slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were Saudis.

Nevertheless, the Bush family’s cozy relationship with the royal family is exceeded only by that of the Trumps and the Kushners. Both families enjoy considerable Saudi patronage, which all but guarantee that the Kingdom and its proxy wars will be met only with silence.

The scrapping of the Iran agreement flies in the face of what an engaged super-power should be doing: bringing belligerents together to work out their issues instead of allowing them to destroy defenseless and impoverished third countries.

The very security of our planet depends on it.

Elsewhere, middle powers such as France and the UK have also opted for mildly-embarrassed protests in the face of Saudi power and influence. They two are held hostage by an arms trade worth billions—the very same arms and munitions that are now wreaking havoc on a defenseless Yemeni population.

In the UK, military sales to Saudi Arabia leapt by two thirds from 2016 to 2017— an increase of more than 450 million pounds.

The real figure however, could be much higher. According to Department of International Trade, the number of so-called “secret” open licenses doubled during the same 12 months, from 21 to 44. In 2017, the UK issued 126 licenses relating to military goods from 679 million pounds in 2016 to 1.129 billion in 2017.

So far as my own country is concerned, and despite an otherwise enlightened foreign policy, Canada’s 15 billion deal to sell light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia is likely to go ahead—even though Canada’s feminist foreign policy should preclude trade with what some have described as the “world’s largest prison for women.”

Our [Canadian] Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, cited the $1 billion price tag to rescind the deal as the reason why.
A recent survey showed that most Canadians agree, but overwhelmingly want to end such deals in the future. They recognize that the very integrity of our own democracy lies at stake, if not the very stability of the entire world.

Bottom line? The corrupting influence of Saudi Arabia is to be felt in all countries. This all but sequesters it from global condemnation for everything from the disappearances, incarceration and murders of dissidents, to the man-made famine that is now starving one half of Yemen’s population.

The Kingdom’s investments in Silicon valley and high tech should likewise elicit real concern. Information is the new oil, and its influence even more insidious.

Is there hope for Yemen? Based on what we’ve seen so far and the cruelty, greed and fanaticism of the main players it isn’t looking good. The Houthis are essentially a jihadist outfit; the Saudis bent on regional domination.

My prediction is that, despite tentative talk of sanctions, this war will rumble on: that waves of famine will continue to engulf the population—even as atrocities will become more common as the Saudis, Iran, the UAE and other players continue to recruit mercenaries to do their dirty work.

We need to impose economic sanctions on all belligerents to force them to the table; we need to ensure that any peace talks include a SUBSTANTIAL proportion of women; we need to freeze all arms sales to all aggressors AND we need to suspend all Saudi royal family travel visas.

And we need to pressure the US to jettison its warmly congenial relationship to the Crown Prince, who is revealing himself to be little more than a straw man ‘reformer’ in the mold of former Libya dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Clearly, peace talks must be convened along with a ceasefire, which needs to be implemented to permit the delivery of humanitarian supplies. Should the Saudi blockade prevent aid to be delivered via the port city of Hudaydah, then we will need to consider a UN-sponsored international airlift

All wishful thinking, I know.

This is because the West is paralyzed by its own corruption while the Responsibility to Protect—hearkened in with so much hope in 2005—is all but dead. It is a revenant of another time, when member states seemed to believe that civilian lives actually meant something.

I believe that the War in Yemen is a significator of more to come. That while Yemenis suffer, the world will continue to stand by—fiddling.

And what of Hannah? I can’t even imagine. One starving child bereft of love and hope. Her story is simply one of among millions. We need to do more than care. We need to act.

But what is the likelihood? Who among this corrupted and complicit gaggle of special interests once known as nation states is brave enough and capable of leading?

The International Community is no longer international — and it is certainly no longer a community.

No war lasts forever.

Let us hope that the next spring will be a lasting one.

Leidl presented this speech on November 8, 2018, at “Between Challenges of War and Opportunities for Peace,” a conference in Istanbul sponsored by the Tawakkol Karman Foundation.