By Zenab Ahmed
Armed Yemeni movement Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthis, has launched drone attacks against Jizan and Abha airports in southern Saudi Arabia, intensifying a campaign of attacks and sabotage within Saudi Arabia, and against Saudi Arabian assets. The attacks follow last month’s attacks on two oil pumping stations in the eastern part of the country. Given the Houthis’ determination to keep attacking Saudi Arabian infrastructure, at risk to civilian lives, at the same time as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition bombs Yemen, it is critical to discuss how the United Nations should respond.
The United Nations should launch an independent investigation into the attacks, in order to see if there were civilian casualties, and also whether the Houthis broke international law in attacking these targets. From there, it should pressure the Houthis to avoid civilian casualties in their attacks, while at the same time pushing for the GCC to suspend its blockades and aerial bombardment of the country. Ultimately, the conflict in Yemen must be solved diplomatically, through a comprehensive peace deal.
The Houthis gradually launched an armed takeover of Yemen from September 2014 to March 2015, partly leading to a GCC military intervention that continues to date. The GCC, and in particular senior coalition partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has repeatedly asserted that the Houthis are linked to Iran, which is an exaggeration and lacks concrete proof. The UN has vocalised this position several times, although at this point in the conflict, it is likely that the Houthis have deepened some ties with Tehran, as an independent group. The Houthis maintain an independent command structure that the United Nations is able to interact with, and it should do so in order to discourage potential attacks against civilian targets. The UN must push for adherence to the laws of war, by all actors in the conflict, which means the Houthis in addition to the coalition, United States, and other states and organisations currently in Yemen.
It is likely that the Houthis will continue launching attacks on Saudi Arabian installations, particularly as they relate to aircraft and the oil industry. The United Nations should consult international legal experts in order to have better guidelines for how to respond when Houthi attacks harm civilians. Critically, the UN needs accurate information on which airports and aerial installations are directly involved in the war, in order to tell when the Houthis are hitting military targets as opposed to civilian ones. While the Houthis have a duty to avoid civilian targets, regardless, the legal objection is different when they are attacking a civilian airport as opposed to a military one. Further, the UN needs to remember that it could be given the wrong information, by one of the coalition partners, and should be skeptical about the information that it receives. Inspection teams from neutral countries should investigate attacks in Saudi Arabia, as well as neighbouring waters, to make careful assessments of whether international norms have been breached.
When the Houthis are found to have violated international legal norms, and unfairly targeted civilians, the UN should make this clear to the Houthis directly, by interacting with its government, rather than making the mistake of criticising Iran for the attacks. Indeed, international agencies, and media outlets, have been reducing Houthi activities as being a Yemeni arm of wider Iranian aggression, which makes it difficult to petition the group to reduce unlawful actions. The policy consequence is that many actors pressure Iran to simply ‘tell the Houthis to stop,’ which is overly simplistic and not likely to lead to serious changes. The UN should resist wider trends in mischaracterising the Houthis, and deal with them directly. This would also be a positive step towards comprehensive peace negotiations that involves a Houthi delegation, that deals with local Yemeni actors, as well as relevant members of the international community.
UN activity when it comes to potential violations of the laws of war would also be useful as part of a diplomatic solution to the end of the conflict. Legal violations will likely require some form of justice, and if the United Nations takes these attacks seriously at an early stage, it will be far better equipped to handle those issues as part of a later process. Critically, it must not single out any one actor. The Houthis must take responsibility for crossing international legal norms, at the same time as the coalition, non-state actors, and other countries like the United States. The United Nations should also discuss which Houthi commanders, if any, should be held liable for any legal violations, and whether they need to be prosecuted by specific institutions. Once again, this needs to be a general process, that includes Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to other actors. Indeed, the complexity of the conflict in Yemen, which involves violence and extralegal activity on all sides, demands it.
Given intensifying Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabian installations, the United Nations needs to be able to investigate whether those attacks involve civilians, and when the targets are illegitimate. When that is the case, the United Nations needs to decide if it will have a process for prosecution. It may be the case that it won’t prosecute anyone, but the UN needs to be clear about its procedures. Regardless, the UN has to be clear that culpability and responsibility lies with the Houthis, and that Iran cannot be held responsible for actions that are expressed through its chain of command. Separating the two actors is necessary, and due to widespread misinformation on this point, would be an act of leadership on the part of the UN. Indeed, the United Nations has a chance to challenge its member states in a way that is in the best interests of the international community. Ultimately, this will be essential for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, that the United Nations can and should play a critical role in mediating.