Saudi War on Yemen

In March, a Saudi-led coalition of countries began bombing Yemen to depose an Iranian-backed rebel group that seized control of the capital Sana'a late last year. The bombings have killed hundreds of people including many civilians. The basic question is whether this armed intervention is legal under international law. The answer is No.

Yemen's President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi had specifically called for an intervention as rebels from the Houthi movement threatened his rule.

But having overstayed his term in office, resigned once and even fled the country, Hadi's legitimacy as ruler is shaky placing the Saudi military action in murky legal territory.

It is just the latest in a growing list of military action that evades scrutiny, despite a high civilian death toll.
There are plenty of examples of governments requesting support for a military operation on their territory—most recently when Iraq requested American help in fighting the so-called Islamic State. These types of interventions are considered legal under international law.

But Yemen's case is far less clear-cut. Hadi had long lost control of large parts of the country. The Houthi rebels—a northern Zaidi sect that had been in on-and-off conflict with the government for years—seized control of Sana'a in September, and the majority of the army was no longer responsive to Hadi.

Hadi's democratic mandate was also weak. Following Arab Spring protests that drove long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power, he won a 2012 election in which he was the only candidate. His term was due to end with full democratic elections in February 2014. Yet it was extended for a further year without a poll. The recent flare-up in Yemen is actually directed against the Arab Spring, rather the revolutionary spirit of the 'Spring'.

In Yemen not very long ago both Houthi militia members and their Sunni opponents were represented in Change Square in Sana'a in 2011. There they worked and debated alongside other forces in Yemeni society—including, for a short time, women—breaking down sectarian divisions in the aspiration for a new society. This mostly involved everyday people, and not the "leadership class."

One of the first moves toward the current crisis was the imposition of a political blueprint on the revolution that left the Houthis unrepresented. Now the Houthi leadership finds itself in an uneasy alliance with former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who controls parts of the old military. This fatal compromise belies their "revolutionary" pretense—as do attempts to impose dress codes and other sanctions on women in Sana'a, and the shooting of protesters in Taiz and Torba.

Former President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi's legitimacy is totally discredited by the Saudi patronage. The Saudis are the world's largest importers of weaponry, and the US is promising to further supply them with whatever is necessary to conquer small, impoverished Yemen. Civilians are already dying. Hadi's recent effort to co-opt South Yemen's desire for independence appears to have been a non-starter, as he was forced to flee Aden and ended up in Saudi Arabia. There he is serving as the figurehead for a reactionary alliance including the Gulf monarchies, fundamentalist Sudan, and Egypt's military regime under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi, who presents, himself as secular, is forced to participate in this alliance—despite his wishes for rapprochement with Iran—by his dependence on Saudi financial largesse. They have contributed billions of dollars to his regime. The new Saudi rulers, under King Salman, are calling in that debt.

Vol. 47, No. 46, May 24 - 30, 2015