North Carolina Journal of International Law

Volume 43

Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Yemen

By: Emma Nunn









Yemen, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, is currently facing a grave humanitarian crisis. After the Tunisian Revolution in the spring of 2011, protesters across Yemen called for the end of the reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a corrupt Saudi Arabian backed autocrat who had embezzled up to an estimated 60 billion dollars during his time in office.[1] Saleh stepped down and handed power over to his deputy; however, this did not prevent a rebellious surge from the Houthi minority group.[2]  .The Houthi forces, suspected to have support from Iran, seized the capital and aligned with the former president.[3] A coalition of international governments, led by Saudi Arabia, have imposed an air and naval blockade on Yemen as part of a show of military strength against the rebel forces.[4]  While blockades of this sort are technically permissible under international laws of war, Yemen imports more than 85% of its staple food and medicine.[5]  Yemen was struggling prior to the beginning hostilities,[6]  and the Saudi Arabian blockade has effectively driven Yemen to famine. Regardless of Saudi Arabia’s intentions at the outset of the blockade, its prolonged effects have escalated to the point that Saudi Arabia is violating both the Geneva Accords and the laws of international naval warfare.


Saudi Arabia began blocking Yemen’s ports on the Red Sea in 2015 as a show of military force against the Houthi rebels.[7]  Western nations, including the United States, France, and the U.K., have lent their support to Saudi Arabia because of conflicts with Iran over its nuclear program.[8]  Saudi ships are almost completely preventing essential supplies from reaching Yemen, regardless of whether or not their carriers are carrying weapons.[9]  The airport in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, has been closed for over a year, preventing shipments of medicine from entering and injured or sick persons from exiting.[10]

In the past eight months, only 21 container ships of food and medicine have been allowed into Yemen’s Red Sea port.[11]  Last year, 54 container ships delivered twice the amount of goods in the same period of time, and in the first eight months of 2014, 129 ships reached the harbor.[12] There have been no commercial shipments of pharmaceuticals delivered since 2015, and on July 4 of this year, four oil tankers carrying 71,000 tons of fuel—10% of Yemen’s monthly fuel needs— were denied entry.[13] Two of the world’s largest shipping lines stopped making deliveries to rebel-held ports earlier this year.[14]  Aid directed to the area under the government’s control must cross hundreds of checkpoints in order to be delivered to rebel-held areas.[15]

This has resulted in the isolation of Yemen, a nation of 28 million people.[16] Yemen was declining long before the conflict began.[17]In 2012, 44% of the population was undernourished.[18]  The country suffered from poor governance, underdevelopment, economic decline, and widespread poverty, with almost half a million Yemenis living under the poverty line as of 2015.[19]  Two-thirds of youths were unemployed, and social services were declining.[20] An estimated 13.4 million people lacked access to safe drinking water.[21] The Saudi blockade has pushed Yemen into a humanitarian crisis. At this point, more than 7,600 civilians have been killed and 42,000 have been injured in Western assisted airstrikes by Saudi Arabia.[22] Children accounted for a third of all civilian deaths in the first two years of the conflict.[23]  3.3 million children, and pregnant or breast-feeding women are acutely undernourished, 462,000 of whom are children under age five.[24]

The blockade has been so damaging to Yemen in large part because the country relies almost entirely on imports for food, fuel, and medicine.[25]  The majority of Yemen’s water is pumped up through diesel generators, and the lack of fuel has led to a dearth of safe drinking water as a result of damage to fuel pumps.[26] Civilians have turned to untreated water supplies and unprotected wells for water,[27] leading to a devastating cholera outbreak. Only 45% of the countries’ health faculties are functioning, due to damage from the conflict and fuel shortages, and refrigerated vaccination storage sites are in danger;[28] Yemen lacks the facilities to treat its ailing population.[29]   Multiple humanitarian organizations have called for international intervention in Yemen.[30]

International Humanitarian Law Implications

Under International Humanitarian Law, the Saudi Arabian government is committing civil rights violations by prolonging the blockade at the expensive of civilian welfare. Specifically, the blockade violates multiple articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention.[31] The Geneva Conventions and their protocols are the core of international humanitarian law.[32] The Fourth Geneva Convention was adopted after World War II in order to dictate the treatment of protected persons, and to list the obligations of hostile powers to civilians of occupied territories.[33] (Add sentence)

Additionally, Saudi Arabia is violating the basic premises of the Geneva Conventions as laid out in Article 3.[34] Article 3 has the same wording in all four of the Geneva Conventions, and it applies to both international and non-international conflicts.[35] It states that “persons not taking part in the hostilities” must be protected and not subjected to “. . . mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture.”[36] Technically, the conflict in Yemen is classified as “non-international,” as on paper, it is between the Houthi Rebels and the internationally recognized government. Article 3 applies regardless; it mandates the humane treatment of civilians in all armed conflicts.[37]

In addition to Article 3, Article 22 explicitly states that aircrafts employed “exclusively for the removal of wounded and sick civilians, the infirm, and maternity cases” shall be respected and protected.[38] Article 23 mandates that each party shall allow free passage of medical supplies and essential food and clothing for children under fifteen and expectant mothers.[39] The commentary to Article 23 speaks directly to blockades, and states that the International Committee of the Red Cross recommended the provisions in Article 23 in order to “save certain categories of civilian from the unfortunate consequences of the blockade.”[40] The ICRC recognized that “the blockade has become a most effective weapon” due to the growing economic interdependence of states.[41] This statement was made in 1958, and the world has only become more interdependent since.

In holding up crucial shipments of supplies to Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition is directly violating Article 23 of the Geneva Convention. The Commentary states that “free passage applies to consignment sent on any grounds . . . sent by States or humanitarian organizations.”[42] The blockade blocked or unduly delayed shipments from a variety of states, and at least one shipment from a humanitarian aid organization.[43] Shipments have been blocked even if the vessels contain no weapons, and the lack of imports has caused the prices of essential commodities to rise,[44] making it difficult for even the food allowed into the nation to make its way into the hands of citizens.

The Saudi blockade is also violating the Geneva Convention in that those most affected by the blockade are pregnant women, new mothers, and young children.[45] Multiple provision of the Fourth Geneva Convention provide for the care of these parties, including Articles 23 and 24, which explicitly provide for the protection of children under the age of 15.[46]  Specifically, Article 24 requires that children under 15 are not “left to their own resources” and that their maintenance be “facilitated in all circumstances.[47]


            At this point, the question facing the international community is how to react to  these violations, and how international human rights laws apply to Saudi Arabia. On paper, the conflict is not between international parties; it is between the internationally recognized government, supported by Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi rebels, who are suspected to be supported by Iran.[48] Under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, international conflict occurs when at least one state engages in armed conflict with another state.[49] A non-international conflict occurs between government forces and one or more non-state armed groups, or between two or more non-state armed groups.[50] To constitute a conflict, there must be “a sufficient degree of intensity in hostilities between the parties, measured by the weapons employed, duration, and other factors.”[51] Article 3 applies regardless of an international or non-international armed conflict, and the only substantial difference in international and non-international humanitarian law has to do with treatment of prisoners of war.[52]

Although there is some debate over when exactly a foreign state becomes “party” to a conflict[53], at this point, it is safe to say that Saudi Arabia is participating in and contributing to the devastation of the situation in Yemen[54]. A state actor is said to become an indirect party to a conflict when a non-state actor is “acting on the instructions of, or under the direction, or control of, that State.”[55] While the precise degree of control a state must exercise in order to establish responsibility is not entirely settled,[56] it could easily be argued that the internationally recognized government is under the control of Saudi Arabia, considering the level of aid being given. The internationally recognized government is not running the blockade- Saudi Arabia is. While they are doing it in support of the Hadi led government, Saudi Arabia’s actions in enacting and enforcing the blockade have been done almost entirely independently of other nations. Despite the fact that many Western nations are on the same side as Saudi Arabia in this case, a coalition should be formed to end the air and naval blockade that is only intensifying the destruction of a nation already unequipped to deal with armed conflict.


[1] Joseph Hincks, What You Need to Know About the Crisis in Yemen, Time (Nov. 2, 2016), [perma:]

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5]  Selam Gebrekidan & Johnathan Saul, Special Report: In blocking arms to Yemen, Saudi Arabia squeezes a starving population, Reuters (Oct. 11, 2017, 6:09 AM), [perma:]

[6] Hincks, supra note 1.

[7] Gebrekidan & Saul, supra note 5

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Hincks, supra note 1.

[11] Gebrekidan & Saul, supra ntoe 5.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Yemen conflict: How bad is the humanitarian crisis?, BBC (March 28, 2017) [perma:].

[18] Hincks, supra note 1.

[19] BBC, supra note 17

[20] Id.

[21] Yemen: Coalition Blocking Desperately Needed Fuel, Human Rights Watch (May 10, 2015, 11:55 PM), [perma:].

[22] Yemen crisis: Who is fighting who?, BBC (Mar. 28, 2017), [perma:].

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Gebrekidan & Saul, supra note 5 (stating that Yemen relies on imports for 85% of its food and medicine.).

[26] BBC, supra note 17.

[27]  Id.

[28] Human Rights Watch, supra note 20.

[29] BBC, supra note 17.

[30] Gebrekidan & Saul, supra note 5.

[31] Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Aug. 12 1949, 6 U.S.T. 3516, 75 U.N.T.S. 287 [hereinafter Geneva Convention].

[32] The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols, Int’l Comm. of the Red Cross (Oct. 29, 2010) [perma:].

[33] Id.

[34] Geneva Convention, supra note 27, art. 3.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] See id.

[38] Geneva Convention, supra note 27, art. 22

[39] Id at art. 23

[40] Id.

[41] id.

[42] Geneva Convention, supra note 27, Commentary of 1958.

[43] Gebrekidan & Saul, supra note 5.

[44] BBC, supra note 17.

[45] BBC, supra note 21.

[46] Geneva Convention, supra note 27, art. 24.

[47] Id.

[48] Hincks, supra note 1.

[49] Q & A on the Conflict in Yemen and International Law, Human Rights Watch (Apr. 6, 2015, 10:00 PM), [perma:].

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53]  Human Rights Watch, supra note 44.

[54] Gebrekidan & Saul, supra note 5.

[55] Barry E. Carter & Allen S. Weiner, International Law, 980 (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, eds., 6th ed. 2011)

[56] Id.

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