North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

Report: Inaction in the Face of Suffering

By: Shawn Johnston

The Civil War in Yemen has created a humanitarian disaster yet to receive an acceptable response from the international community.  Once touted by the Obama Administration as a model in counter-terrorism strategy,[1] the state of Yemen has since unraveled to such an extent that it has been removed from the list of political talking points.  Not surprisingly, the international community has followed America’s lead and dismissed the very real problems that innocent Yemenis face every day.

Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen has created much of the disastrous conditions that are being realized in the war torn country.  The Saudi campaign has created horror for the Yemeni people from two fronts; military airstrikes and blockades.

Saudi airstrikes have wreaked havoc on civilian communities throughout Yemen.[2]  The United Nations (UN) has reported that the conflict has produced 10,000 civilian deaths and left 40,000 additional civilians wounded.[3]  The civilian death total of the two-year conflict is staggering, but it should not at all be surprising.  A leaked UN report in January, 2016 found the Saudi-led coalition to be methodically targeting civilians.[4]  The UN panel that produced the report documented that the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes.[5]

The casualty counts that can be attributed to these strikes span well beyond their initial impact.[6]  Though some have been able to elude ground zero during the actual strike, none have been able to escape the debilitating impact Saudi targeting has had on the Yemeni economy.[7]

The United Nations has reported “[a]t least seven million people, a quarter of the population, are living under ‘emergency’ levels of food insecurity.”[8]  The food situation is a result of the countries dependence on import.  Yemen imports about 90 percent of its essential food.[9]  The country also relies on imports for 70 percent of its fuel and 100 percent of its medical supplies.[10]  By targeting critical infrastructure and blockading supplies, the Saudis have left Yemenis with nowhere to turn for necessary food, water, shelter, fuel and health care.[11]  None have been spared from the suffering, as “some three million children under the age of five, and pregnant or nursing women, require services to treat or prevent acute malnutrition.”[12]  The severity of the situation is undeniable, yet the international community has done virtually nothing to improve it.

The UN formally recognized the Right to Food in 1948 through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).[13]  In 1999, the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) explained “the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”[14]  By this definition, the Yemeni people are clearly being deprived of a fundamental human right.  The Saudi coalition has created an environment where “[f]uel shortages and import restrictions have reduced availability of essential food commodities . . . Shortages of seeds and fertilizers have crippled crop production across Yemen, where around 50 percent of the labour force earns their living from the agriculture sector and related activities.”[15]  Though the UN is obviously aware of the dire situation, the organization has proven inept at rectifying it.

From the very outset of the conflict, the UN’s involvement placed Yemen on the fast track to humanitarian disaster.  In April 2015, just three weeks into the Saudi campaign, the UN Security Council passed an aggressive arms embargo against the Iran-backed Houthi’s.[16]  Four of the five permanent members on the Security Council (US, UK, China, and France) backed the blockade.[17]  Russia, however, abstained because the proposal did not include mandatory pauses for humanitarian relief.[18]  Instead, the resolution requested that the UN Secretary General “facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and evacuation, including the establishment of humanitarian pauses, as appropriate, in coordination with the Government of Yemen.”[19]  The problems surrounding the resolution’s unconditional application of humanitarian pauses has only been exacerbated by its lack of enforcement.  Since the fighting began in March of 2015, humanitarian ceasefires have been declared six times.[20]  Each time, the temporary truce has been broken prematurely.[21]  The end result is a dearth of basic resources coming in to the country due to a UN backed resolution.[22]   However, approval of the Saudi blockade is not the only means by which the UN has contributed to the nightmare that civilians experience in Yemen every day.

The UN has affirmed itself as a feckless advocate for Human Rights by failing to even provide a legitimate investigation into the cause of civilian carnage that has taken place.  Despite the alarming evidence of civilian targeting, Saudi Arabia has been able to use its seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council to upset any attempt by the UN in launching an independent international investigation into the alleged war crimes.[23] The Head of Amnesty International’s UN Office explained,

The strong evidence of the commission of war crimes by the Saudi Arabian led coalition in Yemen should have been investigated by the Human Rights Council.  Instead, Saudi Arabia cynically used its membership of the Council to derail a resolution to establish an international investigation, by garnering support for their rival, toothless resolution backing a national Yemeni inquiry . . . [which] has failed to credibly investigate allegations of war crimes and other serious violations.[24]

Rather than conducting the sort of investigation needed to credibly hold the Saudi’s accountable, the UN has instead doubled down on its support for the Kingdom.  In June of 2016, after the Saudis threatened to pull financial assistance to the UN, the Secretary General removed Saudi Arabia from its “List of Shame” for violations against children in Yemen.[25]  Additionally, the UN re-elected Saudi Arabia to its seat on the Human Rights Council during its 2016 elections.[26]

The favorable treatment Saudi Arabia has received from the UN is not without explanation.  Both the US and the UK are significant contributors to the UN and also members of the Human Rights Council.[27]  Both countries have made billions in weapons contracts with the Saudis during the conflict.[28]  The flow of arms has been uninterrupted, as has the Saudi’s seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council.[29]

In this case, the UN’s tacit support for Saudi-led efforts in Yemen have weakened its credibility from the decades it acknowledged a Right to Food.  Meanwhile, the war continues to be waged, and members of the UN are allowed to violate the rights the UN upholds.


[1] Mary Bruce & Jonathan Karl, White House Continues to Back Yemen as Model For Successful Counterterrorism, ABC News (March 25, 2015, 2:21 PM) http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/white-house-continues-back-yemen-model-successful-counterterrorism/story?id=29901029 [https://perma.cc/R8AA-F9PN].

[2] Ahmed Al-Haj, Top UN official: 10,000 civilians killed in Yemen conflict, The Big Story Associated Press (Jan. 16, 2017, 1:01 PM) http://bigstory.ap.org/article/43471432a8e949a7af6fc56928284d78/top-un-official-10000-civilians-killed-yemen-conflict [https://perma.cc/7DJS-T44D].

[3] Id.

[4] Yemen conflict: Saudi-led coalition targeting civilians, UN says BBC News (2016) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35423282 [https://perma.cc/7YWN-ML7V].

[5] Ewen MacAskill, UN report into Saudi-led strikes in Yemen raises questions over UK role, The Guardian (2016) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/27/un-report-into-saudi-led-strikes-in-yemen-raises-questions-over-uk-role [https://perma.cc/QU4U-KDYQ].

[6] Yemen is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Public Radio International https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-12-22/yemen-now-world-s-worst-humanitarian-crisis [https://perma.cc/LY9S-VFFL] [hereinafter PRI].

[7] Id.

[8] More than half of Yemen’s population now food insecure – UN, UN News Center (2016) http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54277#.WIoQkbYrKCR [https://perma.cc/KKE7-NVS3] [hereinafter UN News Center].

[9] Id.

[10] The Independent, The Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-blockade-starves-yemen-of-vital-supplies-as-bombing-raids-continue-10509460.html [https://perma.cc/3GEF-X6MP].

[11] PRI, supra note 6.

[12] UN News Center, supra note 5.

[13] About Right to Food, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations http://www.fao.org/righttofood/about-right-to-food/en/ [https://perma.cc/9FST-YSUZ].

[14] Id.

[15] UN News Center, supra note 5.

[16] PRI, supra note 6.

[17] Id. 

[18] Id.

[19] S.C. Res. 2216, § 12 (April 14, 2015).

[20] Why do Yemen’s ceasefires keep failing?, alaraby (2016) https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/10/26/why-do-yemens-ceasefires-keep-failing [https://perma.cc/S6HF-MBDV].

[21] Id.

[22] PRI, supra note 6.

[23] International investigation on Yemen key to Council’s credibility, Human Rights Watch (2016), https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/09/29/international-investigation-yemen-key-councils-credibility [https://perma.cc/VTT7-6FEG].

[24] Suspend Saudi Arabia from UN Human Rights Council, Suspend Saudi Arabia from UN Human Rights Council https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/06/suspend-saudi-arabia-from-un-human-rights-council/ [https://perma.cc/7Q24-SYX9].

[25] UN: Return Saudi-led Coalition to ‘List of Shame’, Human Rights Watch (2016) https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/06/08/un-return-saudi-led-coalition-list-shame [https://perma.cc/PG6A-HPPQ].

[26] How Saudi Arabia Kept its UN Human Rights Council Seat, Human Rights Watch (2016) https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/01/how-saudi-arabia-kept-its-un-human-rights-council-seat [https://perma.cc/7ZAE-WWW2] [hereinafter Human Rights Council Seat].

[27] UNITED NATIONS HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL, Current Membership of the HRC http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/CurrentMembers.aspx [https://perma.cc/FN8G-P26C].

[28] Glenn Greenwald, U.S. and U.K. Continue to Actively Participate in Saudi War Crimes, Targeting of Yemeni Civilians The Intercept (2016) https://theintercept.com/2016/10/10/u-s-and-u-k-continue-to-actively-participate-in-saudi-war-crimes-targeting-of-yemeni-civilians/ [https://perma.cc/Z2J7-ND2R].

[29] Human Rights Council Seat, supra note 22.

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