International law has succeeded in avoiding a third world war, but it has been less effective in averting smaller-scale conflicts like the ongoing crisis in Yemen.
Within the existing framework of international law and international conflict resolution, there is little room for armed disputes between nations. This is no accident, as most of today’s supranational institutions (such as the United Nations and the European Union) were envisaged with the specific objective of encouraging cooperation between States in order to avoid a third world war. That being said, over the years, these mechanisms have proven their inefficacy.
While they have satisfied their primary goal of averting multilateral conflict between countries, this has been at the cost of numerous, smaller disputes at the domestic level. Disputes between non-state actors and national administrations are often backed on either side by the wealth and military might of opposing blocs in the international community.
The historic precedent is clear: The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is often cited as the prime example of proxy warfare, when the USSR intervened on behalf of Afghanistan’s communist government during their struggle against oppressed tribal militias. The militias in question, financed by Pakistan and the US, went on to organize themselves into the Taliban, a terrorist organization that has plagued international security for years.
Today’s most pertinent examples of proxy warfare are in the Middle East. The Syrian Civil War has been ongoing since 2011, and escalated into a multilateral armed conflict with international repercussions. The Assad government, supported (upon invitation) by the Russian Federation has been at odds with a rebel coalition that is financed by much of the Western world. Moreover, amidst this chaos is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the notorious terror group that has taken advantage of the instability to claim vast portions of territory in the area.
But perhaps more pressing and more overlooked is the Yemeni conflict. Since 2015, the Houth rebel faction has been at odds with the Hadi government in a dispute over its legitimacy. The longevity of the war can be attributed to a single thing: the support of international superpowers. The Hadi government is supplemented militarily by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab nations that boasts logistical support from the US and France. Their opposition, meanwhile, allegedly receives financing and arms from Iran and Hezbollah, a Lebanese political outfit that has been designated as a terror group by the US.
Due to its nature as an extension of political tensions between state sponsors, the Yemen Civil War has resulted in large amounts of collateral damage to non-combatants. More than 60% of casualties thus far have been civilians, and more than twenty million people have been left in need of humanitarian aid. Moreover, the infrastructure damage has resulted in a cholera outbreak that has been characterized as an emergency situation by the World Health Organization.
It is a conflict that has no definitive end in sight, and the reason for that transcends the issue of legitimacy that sparked the conflict in the first place. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at odds for the entirety of the Arab Spring, an issue that stems from Saudi fears that Iran will fill political vacuums as authoritarian regimes are toppled. Take the example of Bahrain: when pro-democracy protesters organized a protest, Saudi Arabia sent 1,200 troops to prop up the monarchy.
The reverse is also true. In Syria, Saudi Arabia and other oil-wealthy Sunni nations funneled money and arms to Sunni Islamist rebels, causing Iran to intervene on behalf of Syria’s Shi’a-subsidiary government.
As such, it is a wonder that the international community’s ability to counteract the issue of state-sponsorship and non-state actors is not scrutinized more often. Its limitations are seen often: domestic terror attacks have plagued continental Europe and the United States since the beginning of the 21st century. The pattern points to one thing: the mechanism for the transmission of resources between states and the entities they are sponsoring needs to be targeted.
As of now, institutions such as the UN harbor only as much implementable enforcement firepower as measures like sanctions allow. Furthermore, these instruments are neither effective nor explicitly legally warranted in the case of groups comprised of individuals that are not official under the banner of any particular country.
The destination is clear, but the way forward is not. States lack the jurisdiction and the intelligence-gathering ability to effectively track instances of state-sponsored conflict. This problem is most intuitively circumvented by a joint-agreement to enable cross-border security measures, but this only brings us back to our initial challenge: that international bodies specifically designed to bringing countries closer together have failed dramatically. It is this paradox that must be resolved if the relationship between nations and non-state actors is to be tackled.