There are no humanitarian or international laws protecting Yemenis from the unjust siege imposed by Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab coalition fighting in their country. The coalition has been violating such laws since the start of its military intervention in Yemen almost three years ago. This siege has taken Yemenis back to the early days of the war, with their brutality and horror, as if three years of killing, siege and abuse were not enough. However, those in power do not pay attention to the impact of such punishment on people who have been attacked. Instead, the punitive measures are justified and accommodated by the balance of regional conflicts and the interests of others.
Since the Houthis targeted the Saudi capital of Riyadh earlier this month, the people of Yemen have been besieged in a way not seen since the war began three years ago. Civilians have also been targeted by the Arab coalition; more than 60 were killed in the first week of the siege alone, not to mention the wounded and the great destruction caused by the coalition air strikes. The Saudi authorities have closed Yemen’s land, sea and air ports, doubling the suffering of the Yemenis and surpassing any political consequences of its military intervention. Saudi Arabia is a strong and well-supported state, though, so it is not held accountable for its crimes against the Yemenis. With its siege, it has broken all of its commitments to the Yemeni people and has publicly violated international humanitarian law.
The international and regional community not only welcomed the Saudi measures but also appeased Riyadh’s anger against the Yemenis. The Secretary-General of the Arab League has shown no concern about the cost of the Saudi war in Yemen, nor any sympathy with the people under siege. Instead, the organisation rushed to fulfil a Saudi demand to hold an emergency meeting to consider Iran’s role and the arming of the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia understands well what it is doing in Yemen, and that it can continue with relative impunity. The international community has long ignored the suffering of the Yemenis to the point that the conflict has been described as the forgotten war. The legitimate authority represented by Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has been forcibly removed from what is happening in the country; it is no longer concerned with the situation of the people, although Saudi Arabia claimed that the closure of the ports was approved by Hadi’s government in exile, while its main concern appears to be about its accommodation in Riyadh.
In contrast, the Houthis have employed the Saudi blockade in their media discourse, and went ahead with another military assault on Saudi territory. How is it possible to rely on such a group, which has not only killed Yemenis, but also has no objection to being the cause of the siege?
A country like Yemen, without any recognisable sovereignty, cannot impose on Saudi Arabia respect for the laws governing relations between two countries. Thus, violations of Yemen’s borders, airspace and people will pass without consequence at the present time. A Yemen without a viable government cannot hold Saudi Arabia responsible for its violations against Yemeni citizens. It is obvious in light of this imbalance in the relationship that Yemenis and their country’s airspace and land and sea outlets would turn primarily into an issue of Saudi security, even if it results in the destruction of Yemeni civilians. This siege is not being addressed by international organisations, the UN or anyone interested in Yemen as a war crime and a crime against humanity; it is simply Saudi Arabia taking precautionary measures.
The tightening of the Saudi siege has led to the unprecedented deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Yemen; it is disrupting emergency aid provided by international NGOs throughout the war. Many of those who are dependent on humanitarian aid are likely to die, especially in the poor rural areas. There is a serious shortage of fuel and medical supplies, as well as basic foodstuff, such as rice, cereals and baby milk. The siege mirrors the Israeli-led siege of the Gaza Strip, with patients unable to travel for medical purposes, and students unable to study abroad.
Repeated calls by the UN for the Saudi authorities to lift the suffocating siege on Yemen have fallen on deaf ears. Riyadh was lying when it promised the UN that it would look into the closure of Sanaa Airport a year ago. It has imposed additional conditions for joint administration to run Hudaydah Port with the UN, which the UN has rejected. Saudi Arabia, which apparently is answerable to no one, bombed the Maritime Guidance Authority at Sanaa Airport on 14 November, isolating the city from the outside world. This was intentional, to block UN flights and humanitarian missions from entering Yemen.
The siege may be at the behest of the Saudi Arabian government, but there is international collusion. This much is clear. The people of Yemen are being abandoned and punished in an act of collective punishment; something must be done about it, and quickly.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 20 November 2017