Human Rights Violations in Yemen: Saudi Arabia’s as an Irresponsible Actor


Human Rights Violations in Yemen and Saudi's Overlooked Role/ Credit Photo

Yemen’s civil war began in 1994 when South and North Yemen were ready to grab power to forge a unified Yemen. The Houthi movement, which arose from the north of the country, fought ongoing wars with President Shaleh’s authority to seize control of Yemen without any imperialist rule. Saudi Arabia began aerial bombarding Yemen after being alarmed by the danger of Houthi dominance to restore President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s rule and crush the Houthi movement (Darwich, 2018). The Yemen war has grown to be the largest proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia, backing the government, and Iran, backing the Houthi, causing unimaginable numbers of lives to keep power and stability in the area. Yemen has become one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world with 21.6 million people in need of assistance (UNPF, 2023). By focusing on Saudi Arabia’s role and responsibility concerning the crimes, this article will further examine the human rights abuses that took place in Yemen.

The traditional conception of human rights has been defined by the idea that these rights are moral rights that each individual owns merely by the merit of their existence, to the natural school (Holland, 2009). Natural Scholars believe human rights have the highest moral principle, which can be invoked and its respect in society can be created if it does not already exist. Saudi Arabia is currently a party to merely three human rights conventions on slavery and genocide. The country declared objections to the Universal Declaration were that it did not uphold Islamic principles and that human rights in Saudi Arabia were better protected by its Islamic-based legal system than those provided by the Universal Declaration (HRW, 1992). This may provide rationalization for the absence of participation in other human rights treaties notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Yemen ratified on 9 February 1987. Without disrespecting the Islamic-based legal system, this article will put forward the ICCPR through the first generation of human rights as its framework.

Saudi Involvement in the Conflict: an Overlooked Liability

The current civil war, which began in 2014, was sparked by a Saudi-led intervention. The people of Yemen then inevitably got caught in the crossfire between competing parties in Yemen. Although food insecurity concerned most of the humanitarian crises, growing evidence of widespread arbitrary incarceration, forced disappearances, and mistreatment and torture in detention by parties to the war has emerged as a result of investigations by Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations (HRW, 2021). Freedom of expression was also subjected to violations with forced detention and torture, while women have been treated unfairly in the eyes of the law and victims of gendered-based violence. Since 2015, 2.3 million children have been malnourished, as the conflict continues to deprive them of means of subsistence.

In recent years, attacks by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the Houthi forces resulted in the death and injury of people as well as the destruction and damage of civilian objects, such as hospitals, schools, and telecommunications infrastructure just before April 2022 (Amnesty International, 2022). Thousands of members of the minority religious group, Baha’i, were detained and tortured, as well as a transgender woman who was then continued to a forced anal examination in 2021. Moreover, The Human Rights Council’s 2017 report on civilian casualties and the violation of the right to an adequate standard of living is both evidence of violations of the right of civilians to protection during times of war, as is the damage that at least nine homes in the conflict zone sustained (Watson, 2018). The crimes worsen with blunt and indiscriminate attacks on civilians while the marginalized and vulnerable groups, women and children, suffer the most consequences.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia entered the conflict in Yemen for two main reasons: to defend its national security from Houthi attacks and to try to bolster President Mansour Hadi’s flimsy central government (Edwards, 2019). As part of a larger objective to assert influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies had helped with a transitional plan after the downfall of Saleh only to find his regime to be weak and overcome by the Houthis. President Hadi fled the country and called for international intervention. Saudi Arabia responded with air attacks, united as well as supported with the other nine Arab countries along with four Western states. The coalition has launched 25,054 air raids amounting to more than 10,000 casualties (Yemen Data Project, 2023). Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen is so blatant and it gives little regard to diplomacy and other means of peaceful resolution.

Coalition attacks expanded to damages in schools, hospitals, and telecommunication buildings which happened in January this year, killing five civilians. Thousands of children have been killed or wounded as a result of indiscriminate attacks that have ravaged schools and hospitals (HRW, 2023). In a September 2017 report, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated that coalition airstrikes continue to be “the primary cause of civilian fatalities (HRW, 2018). Seven civilian migrants were assaulted, electrocuted, and tortured to death by Saudi border guards while The Saudi/UAE-led coalition tortured a civilian just during the truce period in 2022 (Mwatana, 2022). The same report also highlighted the use and recruitment of children by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition for 8% of at least 14 children at the time. Lastly, 90% of Yemen’s food is imported through the port of Hodeidah, which coalition forces nearly constantly blocked until a truce proposed by the UN was accepted in late 2018 (Edwards, 2019).

Humanitarian Measures: A Short-lived Hope

Above were only a portion of the atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia’s involvement. The panel chair from the UN claimed that all parties in Yemen are responsible for mass violations of human rights, international law, and international humanitarian law (Baholis, 2019). The ICCPR is the concrete form of the first generation of human rights and under no circumstances does it permit the nondelegable rights to be violated. However, the violations perpetuated by Saudi Arabia extend to numerous ICCPR articles. The opening of the ICCPR recognizes the rights not to be deprived of the means of subsistence which are very much hampered by the indiscriminate attack on civilians, civilian objects, and critical infrastructure topped with the blockade of food and aid. Torture and detention also accounted for those to death, violating the core provision from Articles 6,7,8,9, and 11, to freedom of expression, minority rights, and protection of children (articles 19, 24, 26, and 27). While Saudi Arabia is not a party, the universality of human rights cannot be denied. It is a just claim that all people are entitled to a just claim to act or be acted upon, especially on fundamental rights.

One of the notable diplomatic measures to the conflict is the Stockholm agreement brokered by the United Nations in 2018. The United States and a few Western countries assisted to pressure Saudi Arabia into signing the agreement. It was aimed to halt a disastrous military escalation on Yemen’s Red Sea coast yet with little implementation of key components, according to INGOs, while new hostilities in the area threatened the success of the agreement. A UN-mediated truce, put in place from April to October 2022, gave the Yemeni people some practical advantages, including better access to humanitarian aid, more prospects for economic growth, and a notable drop in violence and casualties over the whole nation (Khelifi et al., 2022). 

Yet as presented above, the period of truce did not stop attacks and abuses from the conflict parties. No significant actions were taken by countries but Italy which halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE for 18 months with respect to human rights in 2021, also a few European countries back in 2019, and Oman.

The conflicting parties managed to create diplomatic pathways through communication during the nine-year conflict. Early years communication was initiated by Saudi Arabia yet Oman’s role in communication with the Houthis has grown, as evidenced by then-Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman’s visit to Muscat in November 2019 to strengthen Omani-Saudi relations and utilize Omani facilitation due to its special connections with Iran and the Houthis (Jalal, 2023). 

Apart from releasing detainees, rebuilding efforts, and wages payment, the recent talks also pose the desired de-escalation by Saudi Arabia mainly through a buffer zone between Yemen and Saudi Arabia which did not acquire significant security measures in return. It has sought an exit strategy ever since 2020. The current mediation is said to be the closest to peace, however, disputes and reliability from each party are still worrying. The ongoing mediation is believed to be the closest to achieving peace; nevertheless, concerns about disputes and the trustworthiness of each party persist.

Saudi Arabia’s reckless decision to intervene in the conflict in Yemen worsen the severity of the battle zone, causing damages and casualties. Given its influential position in the region, Saudi Arabia can and should pursue alternative, peaceful, and less harmful, approaches to support the Yemeni government. This disregard for human rights demonstrates a lack of respect for the sanctity of life, values, and well-being of the Yemeni people throughout the Saudi-Houthi conflict. 

Even as the truce established in 2022 slowly gave way to Saudi-Houthi rapprochement, Saudi Arabia’s horrendous policy choice and conduct during the war only added to the Kingdom’s bleak record on human rights. It is crucial for Saudi Arabia to embrace its role as a responsible major power by cultivating a greater sense of humanity, aligning with the principles of peace and compassion upheld by the religion it espouses. It is also important for international actors not to cease their human rights campaigns and push for accountability for the Kingdom’s violation.

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