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  • Diksha Singh


This article has been authored by Diksha Singh, III-year student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi.

Yemen went from being the heart of ancient Arabia to one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. For the last five years, Yemen has been torn apart by war as the local groups on the ground are fighting each other while a Saudi led coalition bombs from above and caught in the fight are millions of Yemenis desperately struggling to survive.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has declared that Yemen is going through the worst humanitarian crises in the world with almost 24 million of its population that amounts to 80 percent of the total population of the country are in dire need of humanitarian aid. With Covid-19 spreading rapidly, Yemen is miserably failing in containing the virus as there is a shortage of basic equipment like masks, gloves, PPE kits and essential medicines.


The government of Yemen and the Houthis have been in conflict since 2004. Houthis are a Zaidi Shia rebel group that was established in 1990 to oust the government and take political control over the country. After the Arab spring that hit Yemen in 2011, the Houthis led massive protests against the government of the then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh in the name of corruption. Saleh was removed and the power was transferred to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. President Hadi struggled to bring stability in the country due to the attacks by jihadists, a separatist movement in the South and the military’s loyalty to Saleh. The Houthis conveniently took advantage of the new president’s weakness and took control over the capital city of Sana’a. In 2015 the Houthis took over the president’s residence and forced him to resign. Following which, President Hadi moved to Saudi Arabia and invited neighboring countries to intervene and control the situation. On this request, a nine-member coalition comprising of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar and Sudan began Operation Decisive Storm, which set forward a conflict between the Saudi led coalition and the Houthis.

Saleh, who had joined hands with Houthis later, called upon Saudi Arabia to negotiate, but due to Saleh’s unfaithfulness, the Houthis assassinated him in 2017. Houthis are said to have been supported by Iran as Iran itself comprises of a Shia majority. UAE and USA accuse Iran of supplying arms and ammunition and missile technologies to the Houthis. This has led to a proxy war between archnemesis- Iran and Saudi Arabia.


To understand the application of international law and Charter of the United Nations (Charter) which is a multilateral treaty enacted to maintain peace and security it is of prime importance to identify the key players of the ongoing conflict. These can be categorized into State actors and Anti-State actors. State actors can be defined as a party to the conflict which has a legal authority by the legitimate government to apply force. Anti-state actors are those that function without any legitimate authority and against the government of Yemen.

​State actors

The state actors would include the Hadi government that has been recognized as the legitimate government by the UN. The Saleh forces joined the Hadi government after the Houthis assassinated their leader Saleh and therefore, should be considered as the State

actors. The Saudi-led coalition, which is working on the request of the Hadi government, is also categorized as the State actor.

Anti-State actors

The Houthis being the rebellion group that has time and again been in conflict with the government is identified as the non-state actor. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have gained significant control in Yemen by taking advantage of the political vacuum created by the Houthis. According to a report published by the UN, the ammunition and missiles procured by the Houthis were produced in Iran, which has been constantly accused by the US and UAE on many occasions. This makes Iran an accomplice and an anti-state actor in the conflict. The US has been conducting drone strikes in various regions of Yemen without the authority of the government, which has caused massive loss of life. In response to that, the UN has acknowledged that the drone strikes by the US are against the International Humanitarian Law.


Article 2(4) of the Charter explicitly mentions that all nations must refrain from use of force on any other state or territory. However, an exception to this rule has been laid down under Article 51 and Article 39-41 of the Charter. These Articles allow the members to use force in case of self-defense until the Security Council has taken the necessary measures to maintain peace and security.

For such intervention to be legally acceptable, certain criteria have to be fulfilled. First and foremost, it is necessary for the highest acting official to grant such permission. Secondly, the government providing such consent must be legitimate and recognised internationally. In a letter dated March 25, 2015, President Hadi officially invited Saudi Arabia to intervene in the matters of Yemen and restore peace and stability. In the aforesaid case, the Hadi government has been declared legitimate by the UN and, thus, can request other states to intervene.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), in its landmark judgement of DRC v. Uganda, has established that intervention by invitation is allowed at the request of the government. This unequivocally implies that the Saudi led coalition does not violate the international law on use of force or illegal intervention.


Yemen was already one of the world’s poorest countries before the war took place and was largely dependent on humanitarian aid. As the war broke out, the conditions worsened and Yemen is encountering the worst humanitarian crises this world has seen. The economy, the education system, the healthcare system and infrastructure have been brought to pieces. Like any other war, the worst sufferers are the civilians. Thousands of these innocents have been children. Around 2 million children under the age of 5 are suffering from malnutrition. The collapse of the education system and destruction has robbed the students of their bright future. According to the UN, every 10 minutes, a child under the age of 5 dies in Yemen due to preventable causes. This brings us to the humanitarian laws applicable in cases of conflict and war.

Article 14 of the Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Convention prohibits starvation of civilians as a method of combat and also prohibits attack or destruction of objects that are indispensable to human life such as food, crops, poultry and clean drinking water. Rule 55 of the ICRC Customary IHL mandates that parties to a conflict are obliged to allow and facilitate unimpeded and rapid passage of humanitarian relief for the civilians in need. The Saudi-led coalition has blocked land, sea and air routes. This has drastically disrupted the passage of humanitarian aid. However, the coalition argues that the blockade is necessary to stop the supply of arms and ammunition to the Houthis. As the coalition is acting at the consent of the host state, it is the duty of the Hadi government to make sure all the humanitarian assistance reaches the needy.

Moreover, apart from the international humanitarian law, human rights law also plays a key role in non-international armed conflict. The indiscriminate attacks on civilian properties, hospitals, schools, etc., amounts to war crimes (Rule 158, ICRC Customary IHL). Attacks on the food market and causing disruption of clean drinking water is distinctly prohibited under Article 11 and 12 of ICESCR.

Human rights organisations across the globe have held the Saudi-led coalition to be accountable for the violation of humanitarian laws and causing disruption of peace and harmony in Yemen. Referring to the appalling healthcare system Human Rights Watch Organisations has expressed deep concerns over the reports of human rights organisations, namely the International Committee of Red Cross and Doctors without borders.


​What is happening in Yemen greatly concerns the world at large as it raises regional tensions. The conflict is also seen as a proxy war between the Shia-ruled Iran and the Sunni-ruled Saudi, who are both supporting the opposite sides by providing them with equipment and technology. Yemen is in need of humanitarian aid more than ever as the deadly coronavirus is rampantly taking over a major part of the population. Yemen’s conflict will be difficult to resolve as all the major parties have unique interests and internal divisions. The situation in Yemen will only deteriorate if all the nations do not intervene to bring both the State and Anti-State actors at peace. International organisations must play a more decisive role in the exertion of international humanitarian laws.

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