In recent weeks there has been a flurry of reports detailing the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen. In his 19th August report to the Security Council on the situation in the country, the UN’s Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, described the ‘scale of human suffering’ as ‘almost incomprehensible’, with ‘four out of five Yemenis require[ing] humanitarian assistance and nearly 1.5 million people … internally displaced.’
The UN’s Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, Adama Dieng and Jennifer Welsh, have also condemned the ‘virtual silence’ of the international community on this conflict and issued a renewed call to uphold ‘responsibility to protect’ principles. Alongside these calls for UN action, a group of 22 NGOs have signed an open letter to the Human Rights Council demanding an inquiry into potential breaches of humanitarian and human rights law in Yemen. Amnesty International has also published a report suggesting that war crimes have been committed by all parties to the conflict.
Civil war has now been raging in Yemen since March and the Saudi-led bombardment of the country, which began on the 25th of that month, shows no signs of abating. Amidst the violence and human suffering, it seems pertinent to ask why the much-vaunted ‘responsibility to protect’ (or R2P) norm appears to have had so little traction in either bringing international attention to the situation in Yemen or contributing to a ‘timely and decisive response’ from the international community. Such a question appears even more urgent following a statement from Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed promising that the Saudi-led coalition ‘will press ahead until we purge Yemen of the scum.’
This dehumanising language bears comparison with the speech made by Muammar Gaddafi in early 2011 where he said that he would ‘capture the rats’ of the rebel opposition; language that was seen by some R2P advocates, such as Kyle Matthews, as a ‘tipping point’ for intervention. Yet, unlike Libya in 2011, no calls for intervention to protect the people of Yemen against the stated violent intent of the Saudi-led coalition have been forthcoming. What is the cause of this stark inconsistency and what does it tell us about the normative status of the R2P?
The first point of interest in this regard is the failure of any preventative mechanism to either foresee the developing civil crisis in Yemen or to instigate any effective response to it. Prevention has been a priority for R2P advocates for a number of years now, partly as a consequence of the intractability of debates around the legitimacy of military intervention. Yet despite this enthusiasm for early warning and prevention, the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect did not even list Yemen under its ‘populations at risk’ profiles until mid-April, nearly a month after the Saudi bombardment of the country had begun.
While this appears to be a fairly trivial criticism to make of R2P-related activism, it offers an illustration of the failure of R2P-related interest groups to meet their early warning and prevention rhetoric with any kind of concerted action. The neglect of the situation is especially curious given the fact that the conflict in Yemen has waxed and waned for over a decade and had been picked up under the UN ‘Horizon Scanning Briefings’ as early as 2010.
Why, then, has there been such a reluctance to countenance R2P-based military intervention for the protection of civilians in Yemen? The answer, in keeping with the Syrian situation, is that such an intervention is not possible under the current political circumstances. Saudi Arabia has been given tacit approval from the United States to continue its bombardment, which precludes the possibility of Security Council endorsement for any counter-intervention. Moreover, it could well be claimed that any proposed intervention could not meet the ‘precautionary principles’ of the R2P, most notably the need to have ‘reasonable prospects of success’ prior to entering the fray.
The possibility of failure, as with the case of Libya, or the inflammation of the broader regional rivalry between Saudia Arabia and Iran lend considerable weight to such hesitancy. All of these problems are related to the capability exercise material power, indicating that the normative impact of R2P principles, and even the agreement to the concept at the 2005 UN World Summit, has not generated a situation where a state like Saudi Arabia can be stopped from waging war against its neighbour or be held accountable for attacks on civilians.
The problems for the R2P doctrine in Yemen, however, run even deeper than that: Saudi Arabia has itself taken on the language of ‘civilian protection’ in carrying out its aerial bombardment of the country. As the codename for the Saudi operation transitioned from ‘Decisive Storm’ to ‘Restoring Hope’ in early June, Brigadier General Ahmad Al-Assiri from the Saudi Defense Ministry stated that two of three objectives of ‘Restoring Hope’ were ‘protection of civilians’ and ‘giving support and facilitation to the humanitarian relief works and the evacuation of the stranded in Yemen.’
The problem here is that to the extent that R2P is having an actual impact on the situation in Yemen, it has been as a legitimising tool for the continuation of the Saudi-led bombardment of the country. Saudi military and political leaders clearly feel that it is to their advantage to use the language of civilian protection, and even explicit references to a ‘responsibility to protect,’ in order to bring some sense of legitimacy to their actions. R2P is, therefore, being deployed both to legitimise and criticise the Saudi actions and, despite occasional attempts to argue that the Saudi attacks are ‘not an instance of R2P’, there appears to be a reluctance to forcefully make such arguments at the international level.
As a consequence of these failings, R2P activism on Yemen remains reduced to condemnatory statements, calls for investigations and accountability and the attachment of an R2P hashtag to Twitter stories on the situation in Yemen. What is not recognised, however, is that Yemen stands as another glaring example of the fact that sovereignty has not been redefined as a consequence of the rise of human rights norms and the R2P; that the wealth, military capacity, and friends on the Security Council that a state like Saudi Arabia maintains puts it beyond the reach of external control or accountability by an imagined ‘international community’ underpinned by humanitarian values. It is, in short, Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty that allows it to both carry out the attacks against Yemen and to justify those attacks in the language of R2P, without any serious or sustained international response.
If this is where we are in the year in which the 10th anniversary of the adoption of R2P principles at the UN World Summit is being marked, it says very little for the progress that has been made over that period. If anything, the case of Yemen speaks of the need for greater reflection on the potential dangers of R2P in practice, which is something that is all-too-often neglected in the rush to embrace it as a new norm of international relations.
Jeremy Moses is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Canterbury. His research falls into the broad category of international relations theory with a particular interest of questions of ethics, discourse and identity in international relations.
Photo credit: Richard Messenger