The Failure to Protect Civilians in Yemen and the Implications for International Norms

This commentary, by Zita Christoffersen from the Conflict Prevention Program, argues that the response from the international community to attacks on civilians in Yemen has been vague and inconsistent. This has direct implications for the Yemeni population and, more profoundly, for the broader normative agenda around the Protection of Civilians (POC) in armed conflict. The international norms that exist today to protect civilians caught up in an armed conflict cannot persist without the continuous support of the international community. The analysis below builds upon The Hague Institute’s long-term work on international norms, such as R2P and POC, and their application to conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, among others, as well as its recently completed project on water diplomacy in Yemen.

After almost five months of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, there are no signs of a negotiated solution to the conflict. The Yemeni population that have managed to survive the conflict continue to face daily shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies. Repeated reports from international NGOs have documented how the Saudi-led coalition has unduly risked harm to civilians by using cluster munitions, and the targeting of civilian infrastructure, civilian homes and weapons depots located in residential areas. For example, on 24 July, airstrikes on two apartment buildings in Mokha killed at least 65 civilians. The Houthis have also failed to take adequate precautions to protect civilians. Amnesty International has documented the Houthis’ use of deadly anti-aircraft munitions that can detonate upon ground impact.

An Inconsistent International Response to Yemen

Even though the parties to the conflict have clearly failed to protect civilians, the response from the international community has not been clear or consistent. The lack of condemnation from the United Nations Security Council, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) member states is undermining the POC norm. Saudi Arabia and its allies, as well as the Houthis, are obligated under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) not to deliberately target or unduly risk harm to civilians. This obligation originates from the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and today it forms part of the highly institutionalized and widely accepted POC norm.

While the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Johannes Van Der Klaauw, has stated that the coalition’s airstrikes in Saada have violated IHL, the Security Council has limited its press statements to calling on all sides to comply and minimize harm to civilians. Thus, the Security Council has not acknowledged that the POC norm has already been violated. This muted response may be due to the fact that Jordan is representing the coalition in the Security Council.

While the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and the Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides, early on condemned attacks on civilian infrastructure, the leaders of Germany, France and UK, who initially gave their support to the intervention, have been strikingly quiet about the coalition’s failure to protect civilians.

The US has actively assisted the coalition with logistical support, intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, air refueling and the delivery of weapons. As such, they may be considered a party to the conflict and thereby co-responsible for the protection of civilians. While we do not know if the US has privately urged the coalition to adhere to the POC norm, it is clear that the US has failed to speak out publicly about the attacks targeting civilians. The only time the U.S. State Department did urge all sides to “comply with international humanitarian law, and take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians” was following a Houthis missile attack on Saudi Arabian territory.

Norm Dynamics and the Consequences for Yemen

Norm compliance in the international community is highly reliant on praise and censure from other states, as well as from international organizations and international NGOs. In other words, the expected international condemnation influences states’ decisions to comply with the POC norm when they engage in armed conflict. In the case of Yemen though, the Western supporters of the coalition are allowing attacks on civilians to occur without repercussions. While we may not expect all states to condemn all violations of a norm globally, it is reasonable to expect that those states that lend their support to an intervention remain attentive to the way it is carried out.

The conflict parties’ failure to uphold the POC norm has taken a severe toll on the Yemeni population. The total number of people killed and wounded in the conflict is estimated to be around 23,000. Additionally, it is estimated that more than one millionare internally displaced. The destruction of civilian infrastructure, including airports and roads, has severely limited humanitarian access, thus making food and water shortages even more acute. Naturally, the parties to the conflict, including the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis and perhaps the US (dependent on their exact involvement), are primarily responsible for the harm done to civilians. However, the parties might have acted differently had they been faced with a swift and consistent response from the international community.

The Future of Protection Norms

In the long-term, the precedence of this case may lead other states to disregard the POC norm, thus risking a rollback of the normative progress in the protection of civilians in armed conflict. This would be a profound loss given it took years to develop the POC norm, which also led to the more recent and contested norm, Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

France, Germany and the UK have been strong supporters of the POC norm, for example as members of the Group of Friends of the Protection of Civilians. Therefore, it is particularly important that these states consistently condemn systematic attacks on civilians. When international norms are unevenly deployed, suspicions of double standards can arise, which in turn undermines trust within the international community and the legitimacy of the norm.

Historically, states have regularly prioritized national interests over compliance with international norms, and in that regard Yemen might just be another case. However, if the EU member states are serious about promoting the POC norm, they should also realize that their lack of condemnation in the case of Yemen will have consequences for norm compliance in the future. The US, with its powerful, though arguably diminishing, position within the international community could be a critical state for POC norm adoption but it will not fulfill this potential if it is seen to be repeatedly applying double standards.

The POC norm, and the subsequent R2P norm, were created in order to curb the suffering of civilians in armed conflict and to prevent mass atrocities. The populations of Syria, Sudan, Somalia, among other states currently experiencing armed conflict, are dependent on the international community in ensuring all conflict parties respect the POC norm. In the absence though of consistent state responses, influential international NGOs have taken on the role of investigating deliberate attacks on civilians and condemning violations of the norm. Most recently, 23 organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, called for the creation of a UN commission of inquiry into the alleged war crimes committed in Yemen.

However, in an increasingly multi-polar world and the rise of new military interveners such as Saudi Arabia, it is not clear if international NGO condemnation will be sufficient to secure the future for the POC norm, especially when the support of states remains inconsistent. In this new landscape, it appears a new strategy is needed to maintain and strengthen the normative agenda, and ultimately, to ensure the protection of civilians.

The author would like to thank Dr. David Connolly, Dr. Eamon Aloyo and Dr. Aaron Matta for their comments on an earlier draft.

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