On Monday, April 17, 2017, the International Legal Studies Program (ILSP) offered a discussion at American University Washington College of Law (WCL) titled the “Yemen Conflict: Prospects for Accountability and Reconciliation.” Mohammed Alshuwaiter, a LL.M. candidate for International Legal Studies at American University, moderated the event. The discussion had a panel led by Professor Robert K. Goldman, a Professor of Law at WCL and a Louis C. James Scholar, Professor Paul R. Williams, a Professor of Law and International Relations at WCL, and Assistant Professor Shadi Mokhtari, a Professor at American University School of International Service. The event addressed the conflict in Yemen from the perspective of international law and policy and discussed human rights, humanitarian law, and the prospects for peace and reconciliation. Yemen is in the midst of one of the most catastrophic humanitarian crises of modern history.
The first speaker was Professor Mokhtari, who gave a broad context of the issue in Yemen. She stated that she worked and visited the region in 2007, but explained that Yemen was a “different world then.” She broke her discussion into two parts: the uprising and the transition. Regarding the , she stated that the unrest in Yemen encompassed the spirit and the ethos of all the other Arab uprisings in the region, and that the rebellion was youth-led, non-ideological (for the most part), and animated by the commitment to overcome political and social hierarchies. However, she noted that Yemen’s uprising is one of four uprisings in the region that has reached the transition phase. Though the protests were primarily fueled by the younger citizens and their values, such as general equality, pluralism, and basic human rights, the protestors in Yemen included Islamic and secular activists with different ideologies, such as the “Houthis,” a Shia-led religious-political movement. She stated that Yemen’s uprising was unique because everyone was united to overthrow the authoritarian leader, forcing these groups to interact with each other. The central demand of the youth activists was government accountability. She stated that there is hope that these enduring effects will show in the long term.
Professor Makhatari then discussed the transition. Then-authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh did not take the protestors’ demands seriously until the presidential palace was bombed. She noted that after the bombing, President Saleh went to Saudi Arabia and returned to Yemen as an even stronger leader. Professor Makhatari then addressed the , who brokered the transition, was influenced by the Saudis, and did not favor the protestors. She stated that “local transitions of this sort need to be as inclusive as possible in order for the transitions to be possible.” Finally, she stated that a State “can’t think of just [its] electoral wins—everyone needs to be benefit by the transition, and with a transition as vulnerable as this; [the transition] needs to be inclusive.”
The next speaker, Professor Goldman, addressed Yemen’s international legal obligations. In 2015, the preexisting conflict was considered a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) in Yemen; however, Saudi Arabia, with the backing of the United States, put together a coalition to fight the exiled government with aerial bombardment. Therefore, one could classify the Yemen crisis as an international armed conflict (IAC). Under Article II of the UN Charter, a government can request help from other States, and the subsequent use of force is permitted so long as it follows the principles of the United Nations. Regardless, Professor Goldman stated that any armed conflict has the same purpose and principles of hostility. Primarily, under Article IV of the Geneva Convention, armed conflicts are only to be “directed towards combatants,” forcing a State to distinguish and protect non-combatants, and the further duty to use weapons that minimize civilian injuries. He noted that aerial bombardment in city populations does not meet these objectives and that “cluster munitions” in residential areas unlawfully indiscriminate because they cannot distinguish between civilians and combatants. Professor Goldman explained that the nature of the emblematic aerial bombardments by Saudi Arabia disregards these cautions, resulting in a large number of civilian casualties. This shifts the burden to the Saudi government and, in a sense, the United States, as he noted that the U.S. could be liable for aiding and abetting Saudi Arabia. He further stated that the U.S. has a duty to stop Saudi Arabia if it knows the Saudi government is violating International Humanitarian Law.
Professor Goldman then explained that in an international conflict, under Article III of the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of persons with respect to torture and cruel treatment, combatants are also guaranteed an impartial court proceeding. The Houthis have been conducting trials including ones with the death penalty, which does not fall within the minimum international standards. He further stated that these could constitute war crimes, and even though they are non-state actors, they are still bound by International Humanitarian Law. Professor Goldman reiterated that there was no attempt to protect civilians, as local hospitals and Mosques were continually targeted, and the Houthis appeared to use child soldiers, which is cruel treatment and a violation of the children’s rights under the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Professor Goldman stated that “all p are not a part of the ICC, since there is universal jurisdiction.”
The final speaker was Professor Williams, and he addressed the issue of peace and justice. He offered three questions regarding his topic, the first of which questioned whether justice was needed in the peace process. He argued that on the one hand, we are here to save lives—to end the conflict. He further stated that it is not likely to have much of a peace process with the people who may be indicted at a tribunal. On the other hand, he argued that there are a lot of people who believe that justice is necessary to achieve peace. While this is difficult, in the long-run, if there is justice, then there is likely to be a more durable and long-lasting peace. Secondly, he questioned if justice is required, and when should it be used—is it better to indict later? In the Yugoslavian crisis, the war criminals were indicted amid the crisis; however, other crises have taken almost thirty years to indict war criminals. Finally, he questioned which mechanism was more effective to achieve justice: the International Criminal Court, domestic tribunals, or truth commissions. Perhaps, he suggested, issuing an apology and just compensation is the solution.
The discussion ended with closing remarks from the speakers followed by a Q&A with the audience members. Professor Makhatari argued that the roots of the issues need to be addressed first, and that not only is the war still going on, but the poverty levels in Yemen are rising. She stated that “we are now looking for accountability” for this humanitarian crisis. Professor Goldman stated that the message of cooperation is lost for many, and that countries should simply comply with the laws of war. He stated that “[following the laws of war] is good policy and does not tie your hands.” He continued, “This would allow a quicker way to achieve the means that Professor Williams suggested.”