Since 2015, the Yemeni civil war has devastated the Middle East’s poorest nation. The civil war has divided the country between the Houthis and those who are loyal to the current president, Abdrabuhh Mansur Hadi. The Houthis are a rebel group in Yemen and “began as a theological movement that preached tolerance and peace in the early 1990s.” The Houthi rebel group opposes the current Yemeni government and is fighting for a greater share of power in the federal government and to have the north designated as its own region. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the civil war, when the Houthis surrounded the presidential palace and placed the president and cabinet ministers under house arrest. The coalition has imposed a naval blockade on Yemen since the conflict began. The imposition of the blockade, however, has only exacerbated what the UN has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
The coalition imposed the blockade to supposedly stop the Houthis from being supplied with foreign made weapons. By attempting to restrict the flow of weapons, however, the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians has been adversely affected since Yemeni citizens depend on imported food, medicine, and fuel for eighty to ninety percent of their needs. In November 2017, the coalition responded to a Houthi missile strike on Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh airport by imposing harsher restrictions on nearly all commercial imports, preventing aid from reaching Houthi-controlled areas.
The coalition’s blocking of humanitarian assistance and aid to Yemen, coupled with its knowledge of Yemeni citizens’ dependency on imported aid to survive, violates customary international law. These actions specifically violate Rules 53 and 55 of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and it constitutes a war crime for “willfully impeding relief supplies as part of the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare” under the Rome Statute. Rule 53 bans the use of starvation of a civilian population as a method of warfare, however, it does not prohibit the imposition of a naval blockade. The rule states that a blockade is not a war crime only if the purpose of the blockade is to achieve a military objective and not to starve a civilian population.
The blockade has been unlawfully disproportionate in the harm it has created to Yemeni civilians compared to any expected military benefit of restricting weapons from entering the country. As of November 2017, “nearly seven million people are dependent on food aid to survive and almost a million have cholera.” There are also an estimated two million children that are malnourished, many of the country’s hospitals have been closed, and an astounding sixteen million people lack the access to clean water. When the coalition does not completely prevent commercial imports from reaching their destinations, their procedures divert and delay the imports. This creates disastrous consequences, including hospitals receiving expired or near-expired medicine because the items take too long to get to the hospitals.
The blockade has also impacted fuel from reaching portions of the country, which is necessary for civilian survival. Fuel is needed to power generators, generate oxygen, and run ambulances and buses for hospitals. Fuel is used to run water treatment plants which is necessary to avoid water-borne diseases, such as cholera, which has devastated Yemen’s civilian population. The lack of fuel also increases food scarcity because it drives the food prices up to levels that civilians can barely afford.
The blockade has disproportionally affected civilian populations in Yemen which violates the use of a naval blockade under Rule 53. The Saudi-led coalition’s naval blockade is causing starvation of civilians as a tactic of war to try to end the civil unrest in the country. The UN has already imposed sanctions on five leaders within the old Houthi-Saleh alliance, but has yet to impose any on Saudi military officials who are in control of the blockade. The coalition has repeatedly violated international law, but the most pertinent violation being the obstruction of aid to innocent civilians. The most likely way to guarantee that this humanitarian crisis will not get worse and that civilians will not starve is to lift the naval blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition.