If conducted properly, the use of overwhelming force by an international coalition could halt the fighting, pave the way for a negotiation, and end the humanitarian crisis.
With a complex coalition of internal and external forces arrayed against one another, the Yemeni people are caught in the middle of what the UN continues to deem the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. With a fracturing Saudi-led coalition and a secessionist coup in the south, the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency remains formidable and has no incentive to negotiate.
Despite the widespread violation of international humanitarian law, the right use of force is still justified. The Houthi insurgency threatens the civilian population, Saudi security, regional stability, and world oil prices. The international community should not be afraid to use overwhelming force to coerce the Houthi insurgency to negotiate. The status quo will result in continued suffering for the people of Yemen.
The Houthis (officially Ansar Allah) began as a moderate theological movement but have grown into an extremist insurgency intent on establishing an Islamist state—albeit one they claim will be democratic. Their slogan, “God is greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam”, leaves their intent to create an inclusive democracy highly suspect.
In February 2015, Ansar Allah officially took control of the government, dismissed parliament, and forced President Hadi into exile. Saudia Arabia, in response to a request from President Hadi (and to the Houthi missile attacks into Saudi territory), formed a coalition of nine countries from the Middle East and Africa. The coalition joined forces with troops loyal to Hadi’s government and with the Southern Transition Council (STC).
In January 2016, a UN panel of experts reported that the coalition had attacked many civilian targets including weddings, funerals, medicine facilities, schools, mosques, and markets; in total, thousands of civilians were killed. In light of these allegations, the U.S. Congress passed a bill limiting U.S. support for the coalition.
Is Force Justified?
Just War Theory advocates for the use of force in circumstances where there is just cause, right intention, when all peaceful alternatives have been exhausted, and when the benefits of war are proportionate to the costs. Yemen meets all these conditions. The Saudi-led coalition outlined their intentions at the outset specifying self-defense, regional stability, and aiding the people of Yemen.
The coalition was (and is) assisting a democratically elected government against a foreign-backed, violent insurgency. Iranian sponsorship of Ansar Allah means that the insurgency is not purely domestic. Although the actions of the coalition demonstrate that their self-interest precludes aiding the people of Yemen, self-interest, in principle, does not make the intervention unjustified, especially when this self-interest is based upon a legitimate concern for self-defense.
Ansar Allah have carried out numerous attacks inside Saudi Arabia, including the recent attack on the state-owned Aramco oil facilities which rattled world global prices. The right to self-defense is clearly present.
Peaceful alternatives have also been exhausted. Ansar Allah refused to endorse the 2014 NDC agreement on federalization and instead resorted to violence, largely because they believed they could achieve a better deal through violence—a presumption that has proved true. As long as power parity between both sides broadly remains, Ansar Allah will continue to see the use of force as more effective than negotiation.
The Just Use of Force
Though conditions exist in which coalition forces could use force justly, this is not what has occurred. All sides in the Yemen conflict have been condemned for their unjust and unlawful use of force. An estimated 24 million people (80% of the Yemeni population) require assistance and protection while over 10 million suffer extreme levels of hunger. Coalition forces are accused of targeting hospitals, aid workers, displacement camps, and maintaining a blockade that led to the near starvation of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians. Ansar Allah is accused of using hospitals and civilian structures for cover as well as the enlistment of child soldiers.
International Humanitarian Law provides three guiding principles on the just use of force: distinction, proportionality, and military necessity. The principle of distinction—that acts of war must avoid targeting non-combatants—has not been upheld. Reports of indiscriminate targeting and the use of cluster munitions have been reported. The principle of proportionality—that damage done to civilians and property must be proportional to military necessity—has also been disregarded. The blockade that brought large swaths of the population to the brink of starvation proved largely ineffective in achieving its military objectives. The principle of military necessity—that civilian casualties must not be in excess of the military advantage anticipated—is more difficult to prove. It is likely that such indiscriminate targeting and disregard for civilian life by the coalition will be found in contravention to this principle as well.
To end the conflict, coalition forces must keep fighting, but do so in accordance with international law. Popular opinion has demonized the coalition, construing them as solely responsible for the humanitarian disaster. If adjustments are not made, international pressure will further ostracize members of the coalition causing further fracture. This would delay the end of the war and perpetuate the suffering of the Yemeni people.
After demonstrating their commitment to lawful conduct and the protection of civilians, the international community should step in and aid the coalition in their fight. Once Ansar Allah forces are overwhelmed, they should then be amenable to negotiation. A force which is fighting a losing battle is more likely to seek a negotiated resolution, lest their bargaining leverage continue to decline.
Though the current position of the Hadi government is that a renegotiation of the NDC federal constitution is not on the table, granting some concession (such as shared access to a Red Sea port) would serve as a gesture of goodwill that could begin to repair relations.
In a rapidly liberalizing world, the realities of geopolitical self-interest remain unchanged and actors will continue to result to force when it serves them. Those who love peace, must learn that the counter-use of force remains not only a justified option but, at times, the only option.
Michael Galloway is the Executive Editor of the Journal of Diplomacy and an MA candidate in International Relations and Diplomacy at Seton Hall University.