Yemen: between war and Houthi abuses

The Houthi militia's crimes significantly aggravate the situation of Yemen's civilian population, which has been facing a war since 2014
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REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH  -   A boy sits among Houthi supporters during a Houthi rally in Sana'a, Yemen.

The UN considers Yemen to be the biggest humanitarian crisis on the planet.

Several international and local Yemeni organisations have warned of crimes against civilians perpetrated by the Houthis, the militia that controls most of the country. Multiple reports by Rights Radar, Human Rights Watch and UNHCR have reported on the grave situation in Yemen, a country plunged into war since 2014. The country on the Arabian Peninsula is also suffering the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the United Nations. However, despite the international community's attempts to stop the violence and establish peace, the confrontation between the Houthi militias and the Saudi-led coalition continues seven years later. In addition to groups loyal to Riyadh and rebel forces, there are other jihadist organisations that are taking advantage of the chaos of the war to increase their influence.

The conflict has also increased tensions between Middle Eastern powers, as Riyadh accuses Tehran of military support for the Houthis, a group with which it is strongly opposed. Many Western countries agree with Saudi Arabia in this regard and blame Iran for funding the rebels.

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​PHOTO/HANI AL-ANSI - A young man with his face painted chants slogans during a celebration of Houthi rebels.

However, international diplomatic issues aside, Yemeni civilians are the main concern of this war. Yemen's civilian population is suffering the most from the conflict, both from coalition bombing and internal abuses by Houthi militias. Although Saudi Arabia is the number one enemy of these armed groups, Yemeni citizens are also a target of these Shia militias. These citizens are already hard hit by the war that has been tearing the country apart since 2014. According to the UN, 22 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian aid, 8 million are at risk of famine and 13 million are at risk of starvation. In addition, there are outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, which affected the population in 2016, and the recent coronavirus pandemic. On the other hand, Yemenis suffer from constant human rights violations by the Houthis.

These crimes against humanity include mass killings, looting, rape, torture and kidnapping. Some of the groups targeted by the Houthis include academics, politicians and journalists. On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, Rights Radar recalled that last year there were 143 cases of abuses against journalists, including three cases of murder. Some of these reporters are behind bars on death row. The interiors of Yemeni prisons are also overcrowded with civilians and prisoners of war. Rights Radar noted that the Houthis have held more than 1,000 civilians, many of whom have been tortured to death. According to the Amsterdam-based organisation, the Houthis use torture to gather information about enemy sides, intimidate, psychologically destroy victims and, of course, indoctrinate through brainwashing. The latter plays a key role in indoctrinating minors to join armed groups.

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REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH - Students attend a class at a school near their home village of al-Kharaib in the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen.

Children are one of the groups most affected by this war. Those who do not fall into the hands of militias suffer the effects of the humanitarian crisis. According to Save the Children, almost 23% of civilian casualties in the country in the last three years were children. The NGO also reports other alarming figures, such as that in 2018, one in five victims were children, while during 2019 and 2020 that figure, far from improving, increased to one in four. "Children in Yemen go to bed hungry, watch people die and receive no education. Every day they risk death or injury if they venture outside", explains Xavier Joubert, Save the Children's country director in Yemen. Last March, there were five attacks on different schools in Yemen, leaving some 30,060 children without an education. For the Houthi militias, it is crucial that children are not educated in a free and independent manner, as this makes it easier for them to indoctrinate them.

Women and girls, because of their unequal status within the country, also bear the brunt of the war. Under international humanitarian law, Yemeni women are considered a "vulnerable group". Yemeni women and girls, like others suffering from war, face the same problems as men, as well as other horrors of being born female. "The humanitarian crisis has worsened health care, access to food, nutrition and housing security, which affects mainly women and girls and puts them at greater risk of some form of gender-based violence, especially displaced women", says the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It also highlights the "patriarchal society" that existed before the conflict, which has only worsened the situation of women.

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PHOTO/AP - In this April 13, 2017 file photo, Yemenis present documents to receive food rations provided by a local charity organisation, in Sanaa, Yemen

Among the most common practices used against women are sexual assault, torture and forced marriages. According to a UNICEF study in 2020, there were 4 million married girls in Yemen, of whom 1.4 million were under the age of 15. Several reports and NGOs point to the Houthis as the militia that treats Yemeni women the worst. The deterioration of the health system also aggravates the situation of women, especially those who are pregnant. According to the UN Population Fund, more than 100,000 women could die in Yemen from complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

Humanitarian aid, slashed and looted

The international community, aware of the grave situation facing Yemen's civilian population, has approved and encouraged the delivery of humanitarian aid that can alleviate the effects of the war. However, the latest fundraising approved for Yemen this year has been lower than in 2020 and 2019. This international response has been described as "disappointing" by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The organisation requested $3.85 billion in order to meet the needs of Yemeni citizens, yet countries pledged $1.7 billion. "Cutting off aid is a death sentence", Guterres said. He thanked the nations that pledged "generously" and called on others to explore measures that could "avert the worst famine the world has seen in decades", he added.

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AFP/ AHMAD AL-BASHA -A Yemeni child receives humanitarian aid donated by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the country's third largest city, Taez.

In addition to a decrease in humanitarian aid, the Yemeni population suffers from looting and theft by Houthi militias when this aid arrives in the country. The Houthis not only acquire funds or food aid, but also loot the aid that arrives for patients with serious illnesses such as cancer. This international aid is the only hope for the sick, due to the lack of health facilities in the country. The Yemeni government has also denounced the theft of aid from a Kuwaiti charity for cancer patients. However, the World Food Programme (WFP), a UN agency, also denounced the theft of humanitarian aid destined for the Yemeni population by "all sides in the conflict". WFP director David Beasley said that only 40 per cent of donations reach needy citizens in the Houthi-controlled capital of Sana'a. Beasley also points out that only one-third is receiving aid in the northern stronghold of the rebel militia.

Hopes for peace

The war in Yemen continues. A battle is currently being fought over Marib, with a population of approximately 3 million. The oil and gas-rich region is the last government stronghold in the north of the country. The Houthis launched their offensive on Marib in February, shortly after the US announced it was ending its support for the Riyadh-led Arab coalition. That month, the Biden Administration also decided to remove the Houthis from Washington's list of terrorist groups, a gesture criticised by the Saudi authorities. The US government's aim with this decision is not to block aid to Yemen. "We have heard warnings from the UN, humanitarian groups and members of both parties in Congress, among others, that terrorist group designations could have a devastating impact on Yemenis' access to basic commodities," said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. However, Blinken said they will continue to focus on "the malign activity of Ansarallah" (the Houthis' official name) and insists that they are not putting their "trust in the Houthis". Washington has imposed sanctions against the Shia movement's leaders, Abdelmalek al-Huti, Abdeljaleq Badredin al-Huti and Abdallah Jehia al-Hakim, for "acts that threaten the peace, security, and stability of Yemen". Recently, the Biden administration has again punished with sanctions some of the Houthi commanders leading the offensive to take Marib.

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PHOTO/AFP - A fighter loyal to Yemen's Saudi-backed government holds a position near the frontline facing Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country's northeastern province of Marib, 13 May 2021.

Riyadh, an ally of the Yemeni government, is keeping a close eye on the latest developments in the oil-producing region, where the Yemeni army and coalition forces are holding their ground. The loss of Marib to the Houthis would be a major blow to the Saudi-led coalition. It would also mean an increase in Iranian influence in the area.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, two major powers in the region, have been engaged in a rivalry since 2016, when they suspended diplomatic relations. Moreover, they are at loggerheads in several parts of the region, where they seek to increase their influence. However, this enmity could come to an end, or at least diminish, something that could have a major impact on the Middle East and on wars such as the one in Yemen. Recently, the Iranian government confirmed what several media outlets have been reporting for weeks: dialogue with Riyadh. Earlier, Mohammed bin Salman expressed his desire to de-escalate tensions with Iran, which he considers 'a neighbouring country'. The Saudi crown prince assured that the Kingdom does not want "the situation with Iran to be difficult" and calls on Tehran to put an end to its "negative influences". These 'influences' are a clear allusion to Iran's ties with the Houthi militias, in addition to its development of its nuclear programme.

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PHOTO/REUTERS - A Houthi sympathiser wears a poster of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, killed in an airstrike at Baghdad airport, around his waist.

The beginning of this rapprochement process is part of talks between the Saudi authorities and Tim Lenderking, the US envoy for Yemen. This meeting was aimed at promoting a peace process and a ceasefire in the country. Riyadh also reportedly proposed a ceasefire to the Houthis, but the Shiite militia rejected it as "not containing any new or positive points". Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said they wanted "the weapons to be completely silenced". He insisted on "an immediate ceasefire to stop the bloodshed and a political dialogue between the parties under UN supervision".

Saudi Arabia's interest in ending the conflict may be due to fears that the conflict could spill over the border into Saudi Arabia, as it has done in recent months. In March, Houthi militias launched missiles at a Saudi state oil company in Jeddah, in the west of the Kingdom. This facility has been the target of Houthi attacks on several occasions. In addition, the Saudi authorities announced that they intercepted two missiles at two other locations.

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PHOTO/REUTERS - The spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Colonel Turki al-Malki, shows the remains of a ballistic missile he says was launched by Yemen's Houthi group towards the capital, Riyadh, during a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
"A special kind of hell"

The possible rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could give hope to the Yemeni population and boost the desired peace process in the country. However, this rapprochement and possible negotiations between the two powers must be supervised by international organisations that defend the citizens of Yemen against the interests of Riyadh or Tehran. Justice must also be served against all those who have violated the human rights of Yemen's civilian population and who have created both physical and psychological scars on individuals. Of particular concern are the children, many of whom know no other situation than war and violence. In the words of António Guterres, children in Yemen are living "a special kind of hell".