Spare a thought for the people of Yemen

Man has become immune to human suffering, but the ignored tragedy of the world’s worst and biggest man-made humanitarian crisis (declared by UN) unfolding in Yemen, especially for over 12 million children, would melt the most hardened callous soul. The world and India needs to act urgently to alleviate this crisis.

Officially the Republic of Yemen (romanized: al-Jumhūrīyah al-Yamanīyah, literally “Yemeni Republic”), is a country at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It is the second-largest Arab sovereign state in the peninsula, occupying 527,970 sq km. The coastline stretches for about 2,000 kilometres. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the North, the Red Sea to the West, the Gulf of Aden and Guardafui Channel to the South, and Oman to the East. Yemen’s constitutionally stated capital is the city of Sanaa, and Aden is an old and well known port. Yemen has a population of approx 30 million as of 2019. It is considered a failed state, where external nations are playing out their rivalries, and which the world has forgotten.

UN declared World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis

The resurgence of armed conflict in 2015, has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis (declared by the UN). According to UN and other international sources (ranging from UNHCR, UNDP, Swedish International Development Agency and Yemen Data Project to name a few), more than 24 million people face food insecurity of which 10-12 million are at risk of famine (80% of population require assistance, of which 12 million are children; 8 million children have no access to education); internally displaced total nearly 5 million. Concurrently, medics have struggled to deal with the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded, which has resulted in more than 2.2 million suspected cases and thousands of dead. Across the country every group/faction without exception including the so called government have targeted civilians to air strikes, artillery bombardment, mine warfare, abduction, torture and rape of women and children, disappearances, illegal detention, forced recruitment and creation of child fighters. These factions have ironically been supported with financial aid and weapons by USA, France, UK, Saudi Arabia and Iran who are equally guilty of violence, and are complicit to war crimes and humanitarian crisis under the UN definition. As per reports of BBC on Yemen, Norway, Finland, Netherlands and Germany (UK too is reviewing it) have suspended arms sales to Saudi-led coalition, but US, Canada, France and Australia are continuing to supply weapons and military equipment.

To top this, due to Yemen’s geographic position between the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, it becomes the ideal transit location of African migrants seeking employment opportunities in Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch has documented abduction, extortion, detention, physical abuse and rape of migrants by all groups. To get an idea of scale of migration: About 2,60,000 Ethiopians an average of 10,000 per month were deported by Saudi Arabia between May 2017 and Mar 2019 (one-way traffic, while traffic has been under-reported grossly, and does not include figures from other African nations). There have been restrictions on imports, movement of aid (medicines, food, water, fuel for hospital generators etc) or assistance by all parties, but mainly by Saudi Arabia which has blocked Houthi ports worsening the humanitarian situation.

These details have also been verified by the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts officially appointed by the UN, who have also specifically stated that several world powers are complicit in war crimes for providing intelligence inputs to Saudi coalition and also supplying weapons and equipment. Top UN official informed the UNSC (Security Council) on July 28, 2020 that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has never been worse, with conflict escalating, famine on the horizon, the economy in tatters and COVID-19 out of control, as they issued a fresh call for an immediate ceasefire[ii]. They also confirmed that as of July 25 2020, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Yemen stands at 1,695, with 484 deaths (due to war like conditions and negligible inputs from Houthi controlled areas there is high probability of gross under-reporting).

Genesis of Conflict and Current Situation[iii]

The conflict has its roots in the failure of a political transition supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an Arab Spring uprising that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2011. As President, Mr Hadi struggled to deal with a variety of problems, including attacks by jihadists, a separatist movement in the south, the continuing loyalty of security personnel to Saleh, as well as corruption, unemployment and food insecurity. Hadi was widely considered weak and his administration corrupt. Saleh’s allies undermined the transition, set up a mini-state and hit Sanaa with ever bloodier bombings.

The Houthis and security forces loyal to Saleh, then attempted to take control of the entire country, forcing Mr Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015. Currently, Mr Hadi’s government has established a temporary home in Aden, but it struggles to provide basic services and security and the president continues to be based in Saudi Arabia. Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran (Houthis are Shias though of a different Sect), Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at defeating the Houthis, ending Iranian influence in Yemen and restoring Mr Hadi’s government. The coalition received logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France. The adventure was initiated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, very unlike the cautious rulers, and was supposed to last only for a few weeks. Coalition ground troops landed in the southern port city of Aden in August 2015 and helped drive the Houthis and their allies out of much of the south over the next few months. The alliance between the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh also collapsed in November 2017 following deadly clashes over control of Sanaa’s biggest mosque. Houthi fighters launched an operation to take full control of the capital and Saleh was killed.

The Houthis still control Sanaa and north-western Yemen, and been able to maintain a siege of the third city of Taiz and to launch regular ballistic missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. In September 2019, Saudi Arabia’s eastern oil fields of Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by air, disrupting nearly half the kingdom’s oil production, representing around 5% of global oil output. The Houthis claimed responsibility but Saudi Arabia and the US accused Iran of carrying out the attacks. Concurrently terrorists from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the local affiliate of the rival Islamic State group (IS) have taken advantage of the chaos by seizing territory in the South and carrying out deadly attacks, notably in Aden.

Stockholm Agreement and its Status

On December 13, 2018 an agreement between the warring parties was signed in Stockholm, Sweden referred to as ‘Stockholm Agreement’. The Stockholm Agreement required all forces to redeploy their forces from Hudaydah (port which supplies the entire Southern region), establish a prisoner exchange mechanism, and to address the situation in Taiz. While hundreds of prisoners have since been released, the full redeployment of forces from Hudaydah has not yet taken place, raising fears that the Stockholm Agreement will collapse and that the battle for Hudaydah will resume.

In July 2019, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a key ally of Saudi Arabia in the war, facing international criticism of its conduct, announced a withdrawal of its forces from Yemen. In August, fighting erupted in the south between Saudi-backed government forces and an ostensibly allied southern separatist movement supported by the UAE, the Southern Transitional Council (STC). Forces loyal to the STC, which accused Mr Hadi of mismanagement and links to Islamists, seized control of Aden and refused to allow the cabinet to return until Saudi Arabia brokered a power-sharing deal that November. The UN hoped the agreement would clear the way for a political settlement to end the civil war, but in January 2020 there was a sudden escalation in hostilities between the Houthis and coalition-led forces, with fighting on several front lines, missile strikes and air raids. In April 2020 the STC declared self-rule in Aden, breaking a peace deal signed with the internationally recognised government, saying it would govern the port city and southern provinces. Saudi Arabia announced a unilateral ceasefire the same month due to Coronavirus pandemic but the Houthis rejected it, demanding the lifting of air and sea blockades in Sanaa and Hudaydah.

Yemen-India Connection[iv]

In 1839, Aden became part of the British and was administered by the Bombay Presidency. A garrison of 2000 Indian soldiers was established in Aden and the Indian Rupee was made the official currency. In 1855, a fortnightly steamer service with Bombay was initiated by Peninsular and Orient Line. An engineer of India, was sent by the British to Aden in 1906 to lay out an effective underground drainage system and to prepare a scheme for providing drinking water. During the 1994 Civil War, India took a neutral stand. Indian doctors and nurses were perhaps the only expatriates who stayed behind and rendered humanitarian services to the people of Yemen. An estimated 100,000 people of Indian origin are concentrated in southern Yemen around Aden, Mukalla, Shihr, Lahaj, Mokha and Hodeida. Many of them have acquired Yemeni citizenship and become part of the country’s fabric. They, however, retain ties with their families in India. Following the 2015 military intervention in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia to quell the Houthis, India undertook Operation Raahat, during which the Indian Armed Forces evacuated more than 4640 citizens along with 960 foreign nationals of 41 countries. Yahya Yahya Ghobar, Consul General of Yemen in Mumbai, told The Indian Express on August 5, 2020 “We want India to open its eyes to this crisis and intervene in a way that it sees fit. We would like the Government of India to respond to this situation in the same manner that it would if someone tried to divide India,”.

Current Situation

As mentioned, Yemen’s leading separatist group the STC which is supported by UAE, has declared self-rule in the south, complicating UN efforts to end a ruinous conflict and protect the country’s shattered health sector from the spread of COVID-19. This risks renewed fighting between nominal allies in a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthi group aligned to Iran for the past five years. The United Nations[v] is racing against time to bring about a permanent ceasefire, aware that the new Coronavirus crisis could add further misery to what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But Yemen’s problems are so complex that even a decisive outcome in the conflict-within-a-conflict between the STC and the Saudi-backed government might not help end the wider war.

Why should the World and India Care

Apart from the human tragedy which should awaken even the most hard-hearted nation or citizens of the world, the conflict in Yemen can greatly exacerbate regional tensions. It is also seen as a struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia with grave global security implications. Due to potent presence of fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or IS affiliates, the instability will spread around Africa and the world. The world needs to focus and find ways and means to resolve the crisis permanently and provide generously to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. For this the external players (especially the bigger powers like USA, France, China, EU) need to step back, stop interference and come together, and persuade Saudi Arabia and Iran to stop any interference in Yemen’s internal affairs.

India must take it upon itself to bring focus and thus definitive diplomatic and humanitarian surge action to alleviate the human tragedy in Yemen (this will enhance India’s status and geostrategic role). With its increasing soft power status in world affairs, enhanced role in WHO, and membership of the UN Security Council, it will be very interesting to watch how events unfold and India’s response.

Conclusion

As long as it’s a playground for power-play regionally (with the added dimension of a Sunni-Shia conflict) and internationally, the conflict will simmer on in varying tempos, with tragic and humanitarian consequences for the people. That is the tragedy of a dynamic multi-polar, multi-domain ‘real politik’ world we live in. The harsh and bitter truth is that with COVID- 19 further putting Yemen in the back burner, and diminishing political and economic power of international institutions like UN (including Security Council), WHO, UNHCR, there is little hope of alleviation for the people of Yemen in the near future.


[i] Encyclopedia Britannica

[ii] ‘Yemen: Crisis reaches new low, top UN officials tell Security Council’ UN News, 28 Jul 20, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1069161

[iii] Numerous publications from World bodies, reports of NGOs and Think Tanks; Also referred to ‘Yemen Crisis: Why is there a War?’, BBC News, 19 Jun 2020. Link- https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423

[iv] MEA Portal– www.mea.gov.in

[v] ‘Yemen: Crisis reaches new low’, top UN officials tell Security Council’ UN News, 28 Jul 20, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1069161

Lt. Gen. PR Kumar (Retd.)
Lt. Gen. PR Kumar (Retd.)
Lt. Gen. PR Kumar retired from the post of Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the Indian Army. As DGMO he was responsible for the entire operational planning, preparation and execution of plans and border management. After his retirement he has been writing for numerous Think Tanks on international and national strategic issues and on security related aspects. He also delivers talks in Armed Forces and Educational institutions.

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