The War in Yemen and the Death of the Geneva Convention

Published September 3rd, 2018 - 10:11 GMT
A man carries an injured child from fighting in Taiz (Source: AFP)
A man carries an injured child from fighting in Taiz (Source: AFP)

By Eleanor Beevor

It is increasingly clear that there is no blunder big enough, or atrocity horrific enough to get parties to the Yemen conflict to admit that the war was a mistake.

Yesterday, the UN released a report suggesting the Saudi-led coalition’s aerial campaign in Yemen likely represented war crimes. The report stated that there was “little evidence” that the most basic moves to protect civilians had been taken. It said that the coalition had failed to consult “no strike” lists of civilian targets such as hospitals, refugee camps and so on – targets that are internationally illegal to attack. If this is indeed true, it will be all but impossible to conclude that war crimes were not committed. 

The report may be damning. But at this point, it is chilling to imagine the kind of evidence that might be damning enough to make the coalition’s international partners - the US and the UK - change tack on Yemen. The coalition’s intervention was ostensibly justified by a goal to return ousted President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi to power over a united Yemen.

Now, the UAE is backing southern separatists to ensure its own control of regional ports. Talk of “strategy” is still somehow the principal justification for the war in the US and the UK, despite the fact that neither answer what Yemen might look like when the conflict is over. 

Some of the moves that the Gulf coalition have made would boggle any reasonable strategist. The UAE has paid off Al Qaeda fighters, and even had them join their ranks in the fight against the Houthi rebels. These are the same Al Qaeda fighters that the US vowed to defeat. The revelation that the UAE ran torture prisons should have been Yemen’s Abu Ghraib moment. But it prompted no serious reflection in the UK and the US about what they were doing there.


Indeed, there are reports that US troops were present in the prisons while the torture was ongoing. Coalition airstrikes have been the biggest killer of civilians in this war. But when a Saudi strike killed forty children on a school bus this month, a Washington spokesperson had no words to condemn the deaths, only commenting that Saudi Arabia is an “important strategic ally.” 

This is all in the name of curbing regional Iranian influence. Iran has supported the Houthi rebels, but in a limited capacity, and with far less interest than it has pursued its proxy campaigns in Syria. The campaign has, however, turned Yemen into the kind of disaster zone that has historically allowed Iranian influence to expand. The coalition has devastated a country, empowered separatists, dropped cluster bombs all over it, and let Al Qaeda off the hook all for an arbitrary target of reducing Iranian influence. To say that this constitutes “strategy” is a mockery of the term. 


But no matter how many times these facts are stated, they don’t seem to help. President Trump has made very clear that he doesn’t give a damn about international law, or about civilian casualties. He actually reversed legislation that would have reduced the risk posed to civilians by unexploded cluster munitions. Clearly he doesn’t give a damn about having a clear strategy either. It leaves one with the conclusion that the supporting parties have stayed in the war out of little more than pride, and perhaps a Vietnam-style delusion that it would look worse to withdraw under political pressure. This raises the question of whether there is anything left that the UK and US governments can, or will do. 

In Washington, it appears that some legislators are trying. The US’s help to the Saudi-led coalition is vital because they provide mid-air refuelling support, critical to the airstrike campaign. Withdrawing this would seriously hamper the coalition’s ability to conduct airstrikes on this scale. Two weeks ago, President Trump signed the defence authorization bill – the bill negotiated by Congress which determines how the American defence budget is spent. 

That bill actually included several provisions that would in theory limit US involvement in Yemen. Specifically, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be required to authorize that Saudi and Emirati forces are making a concerted effort to reduce civilian casualties. In theory, this new UN report ought to force the suspension of US support.

A malnourished Yemeni boy sits on a wooden bench on 26 September 2016 (AFP)

There’s just one problem – Trump has already declared that he will use his executive authority to override the bill where he sees fit. His office released a statement saying that he took issue with several restrictions on the bill, and specified those which pertained to supporting the coalition in Yemen. He said that he would only enforce those provisions when it was “feasible and consistent with the President’s exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief.”  

This horrified those who had fought to implement the provisions in the first place. But Senator Bob Corker, a Republican critical of Trump who had supported the passage of some of the Yemen amendments, said that overriding such provisions was not unique to the Trump administration – in practice, most presidents do it. That may be so, and no doubt all administrations make grim decisions out of the public eye. However, this goes to show that what it really takes to change foreign policy is not small adjustments to legislation, but political will at the highest levels. 

Trump, so far, has shown none. Whether his senior staff change their minds if the heat turns up remains to be seen, but so far there isn’t much to suggest they will. Democratic senators have demanded a briefing in September from Secretary of Defence James Mattis, Mike Pompeo and Trump. In that briefing, they can probably expect to hear something similar to what Mattis came out with when asked about the report at a press conference. He repeated that their assistance to the Saudi-led coalition was “not unconditional”, and that they intended to “work with” the coalition to implement solutions. He suggested these include “no fire zones” around areas such as hospitals and schools.


This is nothing short of pathetic. Mattis’s “no fire zones” are not robust new solutions. This is another name for the principle of distinction – the cornerstone of the laws of war that forbids attacks on vulnerable civilian targets. The Saudi-led coalition already have lists of illegitimate targets, and as that very UN report made clear, they repeatedly ignore them. The problem is not a lack of a law against bombing schools. We have one - it’s called the Geneva Convention and has existed since 1949. The problem is that the coalition doesn’t care. And one of the reasons it doesn’t care is that it knows there is still no real will in Washington and London to pull out of the conflict, and that a few opposing legislators won't make much difference. 

Britain and America have gotten themselves embroiled in disastrous wars before. And it was only when public opinion hit back at the ballot box that the end of the war was hurried along. The sad truth is that Yemen has not seen mass deployments of American or British soldiers. It is a distant war in the eyes of the public, many of whom are unaware of their country’s involvement. But until that changes, it is hard to believe that the course of the war in Yemen will change.

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