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Reflecting on the Conflict in Yemen Six Years In

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Six years since the outbreak of conflict in Yemen, there are 20 million people in need of humanitarian aid, 16 million at risk of going hungry, more than 4 million forced out of their homes, more than 268,000 refugees, and over 100,000 dead. That’s just the suffering that can be quantified. Six years of bombings and fighting have left roads, schools, markets, and much more destroyed. It’s not hard to see that the war needs to end. So why hasn’t it?

First, there is deep-seated pain, division, and betrayal that underlies this conflict. The Houthi movement originated from the Believing Youth Forum, which was created by Zaidi religious leaders. The Zaidi religion is a branch of Shia Islam, but many other Yemeni people are Sunni Muslims. This religious difference comes with the weight of hundreds of years of tension and conflict and international politics.

That brings us to the second major reason. The rest of the world has made Yemen a playground to air out their own issues. The Houthis have been backed by Iran (though it is somewhat unclear to what extent), as would be expected from their religious similarities. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and several other Sunni-majority countries in their coalition have backed the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Hadi. The United States, United Kingdom, France, and other Western countries have thrown their support behind the Saudi-led coalition due to oil interests, opposition to Iran, and some fear of the Houthis. This has meant providing both weapons and logistical support to the Saudi military (and, to a lesser extent, other countries in the coalition), which prolonged and escalated conflict. Because of these alignments, international efforts at peace have not always been neutral, nor have they always acknowledged the concerns of the Houthis about having their voices heard in government.

This is not to say that the Houthis are perfect or that any one actor can be blamed for the conflict. It is a complex conflict, and human rights abuses have been committed by both sides. But those who are suffering the most are the people of Yemen, who have been the victims of violence from both sides. Ultimately, ending the conflict is about those people. With everything else going on, it makes sense why it’s difficult to get people to care about the Yemeni people who are halfway across the world. The reality, though, is that nearly every other issue that Americans are advocating for is fundamentally linked to the conflict in Yemen. Here are some examples:

Criminal Justice and Yemen

The wellbeing of the people is endangered due to many conflict-related issues, such as hunger, lack of medical and economic supplies to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, and most notably, the issue of creating secret prisons, unlawful detentions, and allegations of torture. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2020 report, “Houthi forces, the Yemeni government, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and various UAE and Saudi-backed Yemeni armed groups have arbitrarily arrested, detained or abducted people, and tortured or otherwise ill-treated detainees.” The targeted individuals are mainly political adversaries, some of whom have publically spoken against or sympathized with the military opponents. The detained or abducted people were transferred into secret prisons, which witnesses usually describe as hidden places in airports, hotels, and schools. The Associated Press has documented at least 18 clandestine prisons across southern Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates or by Yemeni forces, drawing on accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers, and Yemeni military officials. The testimonies of the victims are dreadful and concerning. Many of the former detainees claimed that they had experienced physical, mental, and sexual abuses reaching the threshold of torture. They were beaten with pipes and rocks, put under electrical shocks, raped in front of a camera, and ill-treated in many other degrading ways. 

Moreover, there are well-documented testimonies of Yemeni families whose relatives have been forcefully abducted and were never seen again. In 2019, the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights documented “over 1,600 cases of arbitrary detentions, 770 cases of forced disappearances, 344 cases of torture, and at least 66 deaths in secret prisons run by the warring sides since April of 2016.” Noting the severe human rights violations, in its 2014 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the United Nations gave recommendations to the Yemeni Government to take measures to prevent further human rights abuses, including enforced disappearance and torture, sexual violence, and other ill-treatment. The UPR highlighted the need for delivering justice for the victims and assurance of accountability for the perpetrators responsible for any arbitrary detentions. Although those recommendations were accepted by the Yemeni government, the situation has not improved. The same request was made to U.S. officials by many human rights organizations that demanded a broader political involvement by the relevant bodies regarding the grave human rights violations occurring in Yemen. The initial response of Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, was that the U.S. has seen no evidence of detainee abuse in Yemen, but still, they take all allegations of torture seriously and will look into this matter.

However, regardless of the assurances given by the government, human rights abuses are still ongoing, producing thousands of unlawfully imprisoned and tortured people. The Yemeni government, and other relevant parties, despite the clear duty to prosecute the perpetrators of torture under international law, still have not delivered accountability for the perpetrators and acknowledgment for the victims.

Healthcare and Yemen

Yemen needs healthcare more than ever, but sadly, the country’s healthcare system has continued to crumble since the beginning of the war. Due to the bombing and shelling of medical centers, as well as the country’s dire lack of both funding and resources, barely half of Yemen’s health care facilities remain fully functional. Of the remaining facilities, many don’t have basic supplies and are low on staff since healthcare workers went unpaid from October 2016 to early 2019. Even if the healthcare facilities were in the proper condition, it is doubtful most of the population could even reach them in times of need. A recent study funded by UNICEF, WHO, and the World Bank finds, “Almost 40% of the population lives more than 2 hours from comprehensive emergency obstetric and surgical care.” Many Yemeni people face a longer journey if they have to walk due to the fuel shortage and closed roads. The study states that “68% live more than a 60-min walk to the nearest functioning hospital,” a journey that may be impossible for those that are very ill or live on the frontlines, the two groups of people in the direst need of medical assistance. 

Not only is the lack of medical resources leaving civilians on the frontlines with little to no help, but the country’s population no longer has access to basic healthcare. For example, people with chronic illnesses are left to fend for themselves, as it is estimated that “diabetes causes a quarter of limb amputations at [International Committee of the Red Cross] centers.” Due to the rise in malnutrition, lack of clean water, and displaced persons forced to find shelter in crowded areas, outbreaks of disease are on the rise. Just within the past 5 years, Yemen has suffered disastrous outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, and polio, which are all vaccine treatable diseases. Unfortunately, Yemen’s healthcare system doesn’t have the resources to provide widespread vaccinations, and the population is dying because of it. The UN and other similar organizations have been trying to provide relief, but “the dynamic nature of the conflict-shifting front lines, new offensives, ongoing displacement, and changing disease burdens has complicated efforts to prioritize and target assistance.” Without an end to the war and help from other countries, Yemen’s suffering health care system will continue to cause far more deaths that could have easily been prevented. 

Mental Health and Yemen

Most people neglect the healthcare crisis that is present in Yemen, and the implications the war can have on the mental health of the people living therein, especially on the young minds. The constant worry of their own survival that Yemenis live under, coupled with the traumatic incidents they have witnessed, makes it almost inevitable for them to not develop mental health issues pertaining to trauma and anxiety. For instance, the Universal Periodic Review had a team studying mental health in Yemen. They conducted a study on the school-going children of Yemen. Their study led to revelations that were very hard to believe; 79% of the school children in Sana’a reported PTSD symptoms. Many children reported having nightmares and difficulty concentrating in school. Yemeni health experts reported a 40% increase in the suicide rate in Sana’a in only one year, from 2014-15. Further, to emphasize the lack of resources available to them, there are only 40 psychiatrists and four hospitals in Yemen for a population of 28 million. Despite these heart-breaking findings, very little to no response has been shown by the government or international countries to mitigate the damage caused to the mental health of Yemeni individuals. Moving forward, efforts should be made to raise awareness of the conflict in Yemen and how this has led to poor mental health of the majority of the population. In continuation, plans to provide treatment to those in need also need to be formulated so as to give much-needed access to those who are suffering.

National Security and Yemen

American imperialism, in addition to hurting the people in affected countries, is a surefire way to build hatred and resentment toward the United States. It has happened over and over again, including in Iran, which has become one of the greatest perceived threats to American safety. Any future involvement must be focused on promoting peace and centering the voices of Yemeni people to undo the harms that have already been caused. Moreover, U.S. support of Saudi Arabia facilitates human rights abuses and inadvertently supports the terrorist groups the country’s government associates with. Ending the war in Yemen is fundamentally good for the safety of the United States.

Environmentalism and Yemen

The questionable relationship the United States has with Saudi Arabia is linked to the American desire for oil, as are most interventions in the Middle East. Moreover, green technology and sustainable practices do not get developed when a country is invested in bombing other countries and destroying civilian infrastructure. Instead, people are forced to rebuild their lives, unsupported, with anything they can find. These solutions will not be eco-friendly, and the Yemeni people will be right to be using them.

If none of these issues matter to you, though, the children who have never known a country at peace, the families that cannot find food or homes, and the people who have been killed should. Join STAND’s Yemen Action Committee to advocate for better policy, or follow along with our Conscious Consumption Campaign on Twitter and Instagram (@standnow) to find out how you can support the cause in your daily life.

Mira Mehta is a senior at Westfield High School. She is the co-lead of the Yemen Action Committee and was previously the New Jersey State Advocacy Lead. She was a member of the Communications Task Force for two years before that.

Aisha Saleem is a junior at Barnard, majoring in biochemistry. She is the co-lead for the Yemen Action Committee and the University Outreach Coordinator.

Ana Marija Apostoloska is an LLM holder from the University of Liverpool and the University of Skopje. Her field of interest is Transitional Justice, international criminal law and post-conflict reconciliation. She has worked on projects investigating the question of human rights abuses in conflict areas in Europe and Africa. Ana Marija contributed to the criminal justice portion of this blog post.

Ella Cimino is a student at Tampa Preparatory High school. Ella recently joined STAND and looks forward to helping spread awareness about mass atrocities occurring all over the world. She hopes that through educating more people about these conflicts she can help encourage them to participate in the movement to end them. Ella contributed to the healthcare portion of this blog post.

Aishah Syed is a student at the University of Toledo. She is an aspiring doctor and is passionate about helping people who have and are being oppressed across the world and wants to make continual efforts in order to raise awareness for the same. She also volunteers for World Relief to help educate refugee children. Aishah contributed to the mental health portion of this blog post.

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