by Philip Mayne
Since its reunification in 1990, Yemen has been ravaged by economic failure and internal conflict. In 2015, a civil war erupted between the government and the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia Muslim minority. In 2018, when the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) began fighting the government for control of the southern city of Aden, the STC announced self-rule on 26 April 2020 for the areas under its control. At the time of writing the Yemeni government continues to be embroiled in a civil war against the Houthis in the North, the STC in the South, and other rebel groups elsewhere in the country. Yemen is witnessing some of the worst human security failings in recent years.
What is Human Security?
Following the end of the Cold War, intrastate conflicts became prominent across the globe. Traditional international relations theories, blinkered at the state level of analysis, failed to examine these sub-state conflicts. Human security was introduced in 1994 with the publication of the United Nations Development (UNDP) report. Human security makes the individual the referent object of security. Human security focuses on establishing ‘freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want’ for every individual. However, threats to human security remain numerous. The 1994 report lists seven main categories of threat, including food security, health security and personal security. Yemen is one example of a state failing to meet human security in these aspects.
As a result of the conflict, poverty is rife within Yemen. Almost half of the population is living on less than US$3.10 a day, and over five million people live on less than $1.90 a day. Even more people are at risk of falling into poverty. Without income, buying necessities becomes almost impossible. The economic situation in Yemen, in terms of wages, employment, and the Yemeni currency itself, is worsening, yet food prices continue rising.
However, there is more to food security than the ability to buy food. Food security is also the ability to always have physical, social, and economic access to safe and nutrient-rich food. In Yemen, even for those who can afford it, access to food and water is minimal at best. Much of the basic infrastructure has been decimated by the war. It is estimated that 3.5 million people have lost access to piped water, due to conflict. Access to food is also limited.
Yemen is heavily dependent on imports to satisfy domestic consumption. Yet successive governments failed to establish an effective infrastructure to allow the feeding of the nation. Moreover, the conflict has restricted the ability to access this imported food. At least 5.1 million people in seventy-five districts have been cut off from access to imports and humanitarian assistance due to restrictions imposed by authorities during the conflict. The situation has worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic; as supply routes were closed due to international lockdowns, thereby slowing down trade. In addition to Yemen’s woes, a locust swarm sweeping over the country has begun to affect agricultural production. The results of food insecurity in the country could be devastating.
The multifaceted issues that have caused food insecurity in Yemen have resulted in a situation that is beyond dire. Yemen now faces the worst food security crisis in decades. Over twenty million Yemenis are food insecure, and ten million are at the brink of famine and starvation. 65,000 people are already in the advanced stages of hunger and extreme food deprivation. Over two million children, under the age of five, are also suffering from chronic malnutrition. In 2019, it was reported that extreme hunger and disease had directly killed up to 85,000 children. It is clear that Yemen is clearly failing in terms of food security, and keeping the people of Yemen fed poses one of the greatest international challenges on the world stage.
In addition to inadequate economic and food insecurity, Yemen faces a severe health crisis. Health facilities have been depleted due to the conflict, as shelling and airstrikes have damaged hospitals, healthcare workers have been assaulted and medical facilities have been occupied. The lack of access to clean water and sanitation resulted in a major cholera outbreak in 2016. Since 2018, there have been nearly one million suspected cholera cases. As it stands, cholera, dengue, malaria, and poor sanitation are still prevalent, and the health services are already overstretched.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has exacerbated Yemen’s struggles. As of 14 July, the number of cases in Yemen is 1502, with 425 deaths. This figure, is likely lower than the reality, as they are from government reports, and insurgent groups have been accused of concealing the outbreak. Nonetheless, the virus is rapidly spreading in Yemen; and the fatality rate is four times the global average.
The focus on COVID-19 has resulted in other services being reduced, resulting in other negative implications for health security. Yemen currently has a maternal mortality rate that is 47 times that of the UK. However, The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has been forced to suspend reproductive health care in 140 out of 180 health facilities. Only 40 facilities now provide these facilities across the entire country. This reduction in funding risks the lives of 2 million women and girls of childbearing age. The UNFPA states “Some 320,000 pregnant women will be cut off from lifesaving reproductive health services, while 48,000 women could die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth”. Prior to COVID-19, Yemen failed to provide sufficient health services and provide care for the population. In the current crisis, the future looks even bleaker.
In the last five years, over 112,000 people have died as a direct result of the conflict in Yemen. 25,000 of these casualties were in 2019 alone. In February of this year the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), confirmed that since March 2015, 7,734 civilians have been killed directly because of the war, including 2,103 children. In the first quarter of 2020, 270 civilians were killed as a result of the conflict.
Intrastate conflicts often include high levels of civilian casualties as local populations get caught up in the conflict. However, in Yemen, there is evidence that points to the deliberate targeting of civilians. In June 2020, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reported that between January and December 2019, there were thirty-five targeted attacks against schools and hospitals. These attacks were carried out by all sides of the conflict. One report states that in 2019, the conflict was responsible for killing one child younger than 5 every twelve minutes. It is clear that personal security is not being met in Yemen, with indiscriminate force being used by the Saudi-led coalition, and indiscriminate weapons, such as banned mines, by rebels.
Indirectly, the conflict has created another personal security issue, as the number of displaced people in the country stands at over 3.6 million. Displaced people are at higher risk of exploitation, harassment, and violence. Women and girls, who make up half of all displaced people, are particularly at risk. Some girls have been forced into child marriages, and other women have been subjected to domestic abuse, yet there has been a reluctance to report such crimes.
In addition to women, displaced children are at risk of threats to their personal security. Currently, it is estimated that there are two million displaced children in Yemen; many without their families. These children are especially vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, exploitation, and recruitment into armed groups. Again, as with other human security issues, personal security is far from being realised in Yemen.
Efforts by the United Nations and several international NGOs have alleviated some of the suffering through providing humanitarian aid and assistance in Yemen. But with the combination of continued conflict and a global pandemic, the outlook for Yemen continues to be a human security disaster, unless one of these issues can be alleviated.
Conflict has been central to the human security crisis in Yemen. If there is any chance of alleviating the suffering in Yemen, then the first and most important step is to bring an end to the on-going conflict. After five years of conflict and with no end in sight, outright military victory seems highly unlikely. Therefore, international actors need to continue to convince all parties to open discussions and negotiate an end to the conflict.
Negotiations between the parties are not unprecedented. Regional actors have had some success in bringing the parties to the table. In November 2019 the, albeit short-lived, power-sharing Riyadh Agreement was signed after negotiations between the Yemeni government and STC were brokered by Saudi Arabia. International organisations too have had some success. In December 2018 the UN-brokered the Stockholm Agreement, which implemented a ceasefire in the city of Hudaydah, allowing aid to enter the city and preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. Therefore, the UN, and other actors, must continue their efforts calling all parties to seek a negotiated peace. Without peace, there is little hope that the suffering in Yemen can be alleviated, and Yemen will continue to be one of the greatest human security failures of recent times.
Philip Mayne is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Hull. He has a special interest in strategy, counterinsurgency, military ethics, military history, international security and relations. His thesis examines the relationship between military ethics and military effectiveness. Specifically, his work focuses on adherence to the Just War Tradition, and success in counterinsurgencies; through analysing the case studies of the Malayan Emergency, the Kenyan Emergency, the Algerian War and the Vietnam War. Philip has contributed to the Huffington Post and is an active member of the Hull University War Studies Research Group. Find him on Twitter @phil_mayne.