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Yemen and the Weaponization of Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid

(EPA/Yahya Arhab)

A country on the brink well before war arrived, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has been labeled the worst of our generation.”

On March 25th, Yemen entered the eighth year of its conflict, a conflict that has brought misery to a people and thrown the region off of its axis to such an extent that any expert would be hard pressed to predict what will (or could) come next. At this point, offering a viable solution to the litany of crises that the war-torn nation now faces seems even more far-fetched.

Torn apart by competing political ambitions and ideologies, the Yemeni Civil War has moved well beyond traditional warfare and into an arena that the media has seldom had the courage to examine. This is because the relevant actions reveal such a disdain for international law and well-accepted standards that their exposure could lead to widespread scandals throughout the international community, as well as calls for recalibrating foreign relations vis-à-vis our Middle Eastern partners. Whether we care to admit it or not, Western powers have not only helped to export violence to Yemen politically but have actively enabled the flow of weapons to the warring factions.

In the name of geopolitics, world powers have not only allowed certain networks to thrive but made room for nefarious dynamics to become normalized and entrenched within Yemeni society. Should we collectively fail to read the proverbial writing on the wall and abstain from holding governments accountable for the policies they have pursued, we could soon find that it is our very security with which we are bargaining. Readers will recall how the Taliban and its ideological iterations were initially funded, sustained, and armed by the United States so that they could act as convenient proxies against Soviet Russia; we know all too well what that gamble led to by way of promoting imperial jihadism. 

And though many will argue that Washington’s decision from 1979 to 1992 to support the Mujahideen movement in Afghanistan was a necessary tactical move against the threat of Soviet encroachment into Central Asia, such rationalizations allowed for terror to become the normative expression of resistance against Western interventionism. 

Even if Yemen’s ills are dramatically different from those of Afghanistan, it remains nevertheless true that Yemen’s warring factions and tribal sub-groups have based their military behavior on that of both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Today, those groups have accelerated their learning curve and made use of new means of pressure to advance their agendas, namely the weaponization of humanitarian aid and human rights.

Early into Yemen’s war, factions, both within its borders and outside, quickly learned that should they wish to tip the balance of power in their favor, they would have to operate outside of the military realm. First, they would have to entice local communities to rise up against their rivals, and, second, they would need to garner international sympathy for their cause by asserting that their adversaries are committing war crimes.

It is important to note here that such techniques have long been used by Hamas operatives to justify their belligerence toward the State of Israel, staging human tragedies to appear as victims in the eyes of the world. It is only then that they could rebrand their acts of terrorism as acts of liberation.

Using Aid as a Weapon

A country on the brink well before war arrived, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has been labeled the worst of our generation. As of early 2022, around 21 million people have found themselves in need of humanitarian assistance, and 4.2 million people have been internally displaced. It is likely, though, that these numbers fail fully to encompass the misery Yemenis have had to endure (due to widespread data manipulation and a lack of access to proper reporting). In November of 2021, a United Nations (UN) agency described Yemen as home to the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis.” Although the UN was quick to call for immediate intervention by way of unprecedented funding and ground assistance, Yemen has stood as a prime example of how aid can lead to further destabilization by feeding the “war economy.” Yemen’s famine has been widely and shamelessly architected by actors who found that aid provided a useful tool for propaganda and financial support.

From aid retention and confiscation to blackmail and embezzlement, parties to Yemen’s war have stopped at nothing in playing up their people’s misery to serve their political ambitions and for financial gain. A prime example of this was displayed in 2019 when the UN agreed to pay in excess of “$9.8 million in 2019 to the Houthis as a partner party in its school-feeding program, a move which breached the neutrality and independence of humanitarian aid work.” Needless to say, the majority of funds never reached their intended recipients; instead, they were used to prop up the Houthis’ war apparatus and force communities into subservience to their political will through aid dependency.

This is not to say that Saudi Arabia, the instigator of Yemen’s war, is not party to similar atrocious acts. If not for Riyadh’s decision in 2015 to blockade its neighbor, hunger and disease would not have ravaged the country the way that they did, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. “The Saudi-led coalition’s broad restrictions on aid and essential goods to Yemen’s civilian population are worsening the country’s humanitarian catastrophe,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a report in 2017.

In the south of the country in Taiz, a strategic stronghold coveted by competing factions—mainly the Houthis, Yemen’s recognized government forces—southern separatists and Al-Qaeda have used water as a bargain chip for control. Through sieges and blockades, the Houthi forces, for example, prevented civilians in government-controlled areas from accessing wells and water supplies provided by aid organizations. This was intended to instigate internal tensions and engineer an uprising. 

Another war strategy has involved bombing dams, reservoirs, desalination plants, and freshwater pipes in enemy territory. This was the case in 2016 when Saudi warplanes targeted a major desalination plant in the city of Mokha, causing the disruption of the water supply in numerous Houthi-controlled territories. Such actions have exacerbated internal tensions, directly playing up narratives of sectarianism and tribal rivalry.

Not even the Coronavirus (COVID-19) could deter Yemen’s warring factions; if anything, the pandemic offered new avenues of pressure, further pushing the limits of the tolerable. Human Rights Watch found in September 2020 that “efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and respond to other urgent health needs in Yemen have been severely hampered by onerous restrictions and obstacles that the Houthis and other authorities have imposed on international aid agencies and humanitarian organizations.”

Furthermore, “Since May, the Houthis have blocked 262 containers in Hodeida port belonging to the World Health Organization as well as a large shipment of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the Covid-19 response. The Houthis have tried to use some of the shipments as bargaining chips in negotiations relating to the lifting of other aid obstacles and agreed to release 118 of the containers in late August or early September.”

The danger we face now is a normalization of such actions. This is all the more the case when they serve as political ammunition to state actors that we ought to hold to greater standards. In turn, we become party to grave humanitarian violations when funding unsavory actors. These are funds, after all, that move outside of our control and will, ultimately, support a parallel economy, while also fanning radicalization.

Weaponizing Human Rights 

The weaponization of human rights (also known as “lawfare”) was first described in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of a global effort to delegitimize Israel’s efforts in curtailing attacks on its civilian population by groups claiming self-righteous victimhood against their “oppressor.” Through the exploitation of legal frameworks and principles, factions such as Hamas have turned public outrage into a major weapon in their political struggle against Israel, hoping to sway public opinion toward supporting their ideology.

Lawfare today has moved beyond the particulars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to become a normative tool of pressure and manipulation. Yemen has not escaped the trend. However, few media outlets have picked up on this development, playing directly into the hands of so-called activists in this new game for popular support, reducing the war narrative to an exercise in public relations and emotional blackmail.

Rather than offer context to a conflict that ultimately relates to the dissemination of dangerous political forces and ideology, such as that of Iran’s imperial nihilism, the press has been busy playing up “outrage” to attract readership and has, in the process, promoted radicalism and military expansionism. This is, of course, comes at the cost of encouraging democratization in the Middle East.

And though many will argue that Saudi Arabia acted tyrannically in its attack on Yemen on the basis that it wished to pre-empt the rise of the Houthis in Yemen, it remains true that Saudi Arabia’s fears were, indeed, justified. A close ally of Iran’s ideological block, the Houthis have been relentless when pursuing their expansionist campaign within Yemen, looking to replace the Republic with a type of religious tribalism. To ignore such realities in our defense of human rights violations is to condemn ourselves to legitimizing terror.

It is undoubtedly true that Saudi Arabia has committed heinous crimes against civilians by carpet bombing heavily-populated areas, maiming men, women and children; however, it is also true that the Houthis have systematically engineered their attacks against Saudi Arabia’s interests from said heavily-populated areas so as to ensure that Riyadh’s retaliation would lead to mass slaughter. All the while, by preventing the distribution of aid (either through blockade or confiscation), the Houthis have been able to blame Saudi Arabia for famine and for the spread of such preventable diseases as cholera and typhoid.

“The Houthis’ obstruction has hindered several programs that feed the near-starving population and help those displaced by the nearly 6-year civil war,” a senior UN official told the press in early 2020, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

And since mid-2019, the Houthis have demanded a cut of 2% from Yemen’s total aid budget, all the while accusing Saudi Arabia of starving the country to gain a military advantage. In an email to the Associated Press in 2020 a spokesperson for the United States Agency for International Development noted that the Houthis’ attempts “to implement a tax on humanitarian assistance are unacceptable and directly contradict international humanitarian principles.” To put things in perspective, the Houthis’ tax would generate an income of $60 to $80 million, an influx of funds that would obviously serve to consolidate the group’s position and further prevent any meaningful resolution to the conflict.

Another aspect of lawfare has been seen in the proliferation in Yemen of non-governmental organizations claiming to alleviate suffering while acting as fronts for political factions looking to buy themselves new loyalties and areas of control. Following in the example of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s, the Houthis and others have played a clever game of hide-and-seek to structure covert recruitment programs—more often than not attracting and rerouting legitimate sources of funding from international donors to serve their political and religious agendas.

Such a network was uncovered by the Saudis in September 2021 through the arrest of Hassan Al Emad, a cleric close to both the Houthis and Iran’s Islamic Republic. The founder and secretary general of Yemen’s growing new political faction, the Future of Justice, Al Emad has been instrumental in setting up several non-governmental organizations in Northern Yemen to help recruit new converts to his political views, offering bread and money to communities in exchange for their unwavering support.

While we owe Yemen and its people humanitarian assistance, our help must be structured in such a way that we do not end up fanning insecurity by playing into the hands of radical ideologues. Should we allow for raw emotions to dictate our decisions, thus operating from a reactive state, we risk perpetuating the current dynamics of the war, enabling terrorists to further entrench themselves in our democratic discourse.

A former consultant to the United Nations Security Council on Yemen, Catherine Perez-Shakdam has been one of the few Western analysts of Jewish heritage ever to manage to move within Iran’s corridors of power. 

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