On Oct. 17, a Houthi rebel court subpoenaed a slew of over 125 international persons to appear on charges of crimes against humanity. Individuals called include the current and former United States presidents, the two former UK prime ministers, the King and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, as well as the previously deposed president of Yemen. According to the United Nations, Yemen is currently undergoing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world with thousands of civilians dying every year to war, famine, or disease. Over 90,000 Yemeni civilians are estimated to have been killed as a result of this conflict.
The rebels themselves have been accused of perpetrating harm to civilians and endangering their lives. They have laid siege to large cities and employed child militants. Their subpoena is warranted to do little, as the rebels possess neither an immensely strong military, nor any international legitimacy as a state. On the other hand, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition which is assisting the deposed regime of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to take back control from the Houthis and other rebels is the invading party. It could be argued that they hold some responsibility in creating such a large instance of human suffering. What makes this relevant to us is that this coalition is aided by intelligence and logistical support from the United States, UK, and France. Not only that, the Saudi Arabian government is supplied with weapons from United States defense contractors. In 2017, President Trump approved a $110 billion weapons contract with the Saudi Arabian government. President Obama was criticized for selling weapons as well but halted the contracts in 2016. What does it mean in both ethical and legal terms that some of the wealthiest and most developed countries are participating in, and even profiting off, a conflict which is killing thousands of civilians and leaving many thousands more in impoverished, disease-stricken, and war-torn areas? It is important to understand the origins of this conflict in order to analyze the United States’ ethical and potentially legal responsibility in the matter.
In 2011, as a result of the Arab Spring, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down and hand over power to his then-deputy Hadi. During the tenure of his presidency, Yemen suffered corruption, terrorism, food insecurity, and unemployment. In 2014, the Houthi rebel party, which represents a Shia minority in Yemen, took over the city of Sanaa with the help of Sunni rebels and members of former President Saleh’s security detail. Then, in March 2015, after continued fighting, they forced President Hadi to flee the country to the neighboring country of Saudi Arabia. Shortly after that, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab nations began an airstrike campaign against rebel positions, which indiscriminately affected civilian populations. The reason that this conflict has maintained international legal legitimacy even among harsh criticism is because of the current-day broad application of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter as well as the more recent United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249.
The current interpretation of this resolution effectively gives legitimacy to international interventions whose goal is to combat global terrorism. Ironically, “[t]he purpose of the Charter framework, as emphasized in the Preamble, is to banish war from international relations.”
“The Charter refers to ‘war’ in the spirit of ‘never again’: first, in the Preamble’s statement of purpose ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind’, and second, in reference to the Second World War (Article 77 and Article 107). 1 The rest of the Charter refers to: ‘effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace’, ‘aggression’, ‘actions with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression, ‘action by land, sea, or land forces’, ‘armed force’, ‘military measures’, ‘international and local disputes’, ‘threats and use of force’, and ‘enforcement action’. The clear exception to the ban on the use of force under Article 2(4) is action that is within the limits of collective security and adheres to the core purpose of the UN ‘to maintain international peace and security’, and/or the inherent right to self-defense.”
This exception is enumerated in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. The article is written as such:
“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”
Resolution 2249 was passed as a result of the September 11 bombings and highlighted the “‘unprecedented’ threat of global terrorism.” In her essay: Incomplete World Order: United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 (2015) and the Use of Force in International Law, Elena Cirkovic examines recent cases of international intervention and analyzes them through the scope of legitimate use of force. Examining the situations in Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine, she concludes that the use of force in international law is not an exception to the rule, but an inherent part of international politics despite what the U.N. Charter would like to see. Whenever “non-state” actors were considered a threat to “international peace and security” or even to individual or collective national security, this effectively legitimized a state’s authority to use force against them. This was what the Saudi-led coalition used to justify its intervention in the Yemeni state. According to Saudi officials, Houthi leaders were advocating radical and violent standpoints of Islam and were committing terrorist acts, allegedly supported by the state of Iran, which is a neighboring Shia-dominant regional power. This was determined as a threat to both self-defense and to the international global order, as United States officials justified their participation as part of its fight against global terrorism. The Saudi state position is legally justifiable both by the presence of former conflict and by the viable legitimacy of the ousted Hadi regime. Cirkovic writes this about the legal situation in Yemen:
“The five participating States of the Gulf Cooperation Council provide some explanation for the legal basis for the airstrikes in the written statement to the UNSC. The statement quotes a letter from President Hadi requesting military intervention, and provides the following three claims for justification of intervention: the intervention is invoked by the ‘Intervention by invitation’ doctrine on behalf of President Hadi; pre-emptive self-defense against the threat posed by the Houthis to Saudi Arabia and the whole region under Article 51 of the UN Charter; and, collective self-defense of Yemen against the Iranian supported Houthis under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen is based on the assumption of Hadi’s legitimacy. The alleged Iranian involvement implies that the collective self-defense could be directed against the foreign military forces as already acting within Yemen’s territory, and the ‘insurgents’ who are their proxies/agents.”
We can conclude based on this justification that the Saudi coalition has a legitimate claim to self-defense under the vague umbrella of international law. If that is the case, then what is currently the worst humanitarian crisis in the world is sanctioned by law. This seems to be the point that the Houthi rebel court is making with their subpoena. It implies culpability of the entire international system in the sanctioning of horrible violence in Yemen.
The subpoena is more than simply an enumeration of crimes done by individuals, but a critique of the entire legality of international law itself. This puts international law in direct conflict with the purported claims of the United Nations Charter. Intervention is becoming the norm and violence in this country is sanctioned and institutionalized. Even though the Houthi rebels themselves are accused of gross human rights violations, the international legal system (or lack thereof) does much more than stand by and shrug at the massive human suffering in Yemen. It sanctions and legally justifies both the regional and international intervention. It also both sets and reaffirms a legal precedent that was used in Syria and Libya further implicating the international legal system in propagating regional conflicts.