The Conflict in Yemen and Trajectories for Peace: Recap

Street photography of Yemen stone alley and buildings
Yemen. Source: Rod Waddington, Creative Commons for Flickr.

Fatima Abo Alasrar, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute and former senior analyst at the Arabia Foundation, joined us on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 to shed some light on the crisis in Yemen and advocate a new social contract regarding Yemen as the war has evolved from a local insurrection into an international effort that has exposed greater vulnerabilities of the country, weakened the central government, and emboldened foreign threats to Yemen.

Before the country appointed a president, the Zaydis, an Islamic sect, were dominant in Yemen where they resided for thousands of years. Its Imams controlled the north of Yemen, as the theocratic Yemen Arab Republic, as the south slowly turned into the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. When the president in the north, Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime proposed to unite the north and south under one government, unification was not based on democratic principles, but on state, rhetoric-accentuated polarization and identity politics. For northerners, the war ended succession, but the southerners grieved as they became second-class citizens who were exploited under occupation. Meanwhile, the Houthi Movement organized Zaydi-Shia fighters against underdevelopment and political marginalization as they protested the dilution of Zaydi influence and identity. Inequality built resentment among civilians and some of the dissatisfied joined extremist groups or protest as people lost faith in the state. As more states and non-state actors got involved and introduced differing political and ideological orientations and promoted their interests, efforts deepened sectarian divides.

Saudi Arabia continued to assist the government against the Houthi rebels, especially motivated by their Shiite rival, Iran who supported the Houthi insurgency; however, Ms. AlAsrar revealed Saudi shortcomings in the military’s lack of warfare experience, increase in spending, and media coverage criticizing domestic failures.  She explained that Saudi Arabia has only aggravated this already dire humanitarian crisis and now faces ramifications.  She urged, instead of encouraging Saudi intervention, international attention should shift focus.

AlAsrar stressed Iranian intervention and influence in Houthi insurgency -evident as the group’s propaganda and style mirrors the others’- where Houthis considered themselves proud members of the Iran-led Axis of Resistance alliance (resisting the West and Israel). The Houthis act as Iran’s proxy to advance their goals in Yemen just as the Iranians act as Houthis’ proxy to get power in their own political agenda and this relationship has only festered.

Group holding sign Reading "STOP US SAUDI WAR CRIMES IN YEMEN"
Felton Davis. Creative Commons for Flickr.

The US is complicit in war crimes as it supports Saudi Arabia, a major ally, who is threatened by Western antagonizers including Iran and Houthi rebels in the counter-terrorism narrative. This alliance has clouded Americans’ knowledge of Yemeni objectives and continues to kill, repress, and threaten civilians. Now all players may use the counter-terrorism narrative to attract the international community, which is not as informed and interested in the domestic conflict consuming Yemen.

Radicalized and terrorist groups concentrate and compete for the spotlight and the conflict has amplified as it is linked to the war on terror for international attention. Al-Qaeda is such a group who has acted as a gang for hire in the Yemen conflict. The intervention of regional powers also threatens to draw Yemen further into the broader Sunni-Shia divide. Iran exploited the conflict to increase its influence in the region becoming the most beneficiary actor for its relatively low cost. Whereas, U.S. backed Saudi Arabia suffers reputational damage which is creating more friction.

All sides of the conflict have been accused of violations of international humanitarian law and organization which are pushing Yemeni civilians out. AlAsrar questions whether the UN can hold the Houthis accountable for their end of the bargain. The UN’s plan for Yemen has been shaped in Houthi favor, “confident in their power of destruction,” accepting Houthi demands and encouraging their extraction of concessions so the deal does not collapse. The desire to keep the Houthi involved in the peace process has only legitimized a violent non-state actor.

Children standing over ruins in Yemen.
343 Searching Through Ruins. Felton Davis. Creative Commons for Flickr.

The speaker’s concern was in the international community’s engagement regarding the conflict in Yemen, misguided, misinformed, and disconnected narrative on which international actors base their policies. Political engagement continues to be overshadowed by limited propaganda and media coverage of the war.

AlAsrar elaborated with frustration concerning the overwhelming use of the humanitarian narrative to explain the conflict in Yemen. A lot of humanitarian work is fast-paced and reaches for an emotional narrative. There is a lack of comprehensive policy instruments when the audience sees humanitarian assistance as the primary tool. International humanitarian organization has hijacked the voices of the local civil society to provide immediate relief which cannot speak for the broader political factors that have created and perpetuated the crisis.

Other regional governments have interceded to pursue and protect their own interests, but the root of the Yemeni conflict was a domestic one. These foreign powers may encourage their partners to engage in a political process for peace but have instead overshadowed the conflict in Yemen which was driven by concerns in sectarian marginalization, economic underdevelopment, and displeasure at governmental political distraction in cooperation with foreign powers, the United States and Saudi Arabia. In response, AlAsrar’s narrative encourages broader education and analysis on the different motivations, perspectives, and grievances of each actor to establish a more comprehensive and consistent strategy and policy to deal with the exasperated and dire Yemen Conflict.

Assisting the Non-Assisted

On Monday, October 1, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based and law organizations, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 1: Focus on Europe. Following, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of UAB Institute for Human Rights, and April Jackson-MacLennan, J.D., from the Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., covered the legal challenges of this phenomenon from an international and national perspective, respectively.

Dr. Reuter Presenting Refugee Statistics. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

The event began with a viewing of the documentary Non Assistance, sponsored by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta, which illustrates how sociopolitical crises in the Middle East and North Africa have galvanized thousands of people to flee their home countries, permeating the Mediterranean Sea with frail boats past occupancy, holding limited supplies. Just like its title, the film focused on the lack of assistance refugee boats receive during their treacherous journey, highlighting the tragedy on March 27, 2011 that lead to 63 Tripolitanian refugee fatalities.

Despite endearment from many Europeans citizens, like the vigilantes that aim to rescue whoever they can with their personal boats, many ships in the Mediterranean to do not strive to assist the refugees. However, in 2015 alone, Doctors Without Borders rescued over 23,000 people in the Mediterranean with a just three boats, demonstrating how non-governmental parties can be instrumental in addressing this crisis. One theory for this disparity is, since the first country of contact is responsible for reporting asylum, governments do not want to carry the burden of assisting refugees. Such an outcome begs us to ask: What steps are the European Union (EU) taking to address this issue? How would you feel being lost and abandoned at sea with just the shirt on your back? Where is the humanity?

After the film, Dr. Reuter and Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan fielded questions from the aghast, yet spirited, audience. People wanted to know what can be done; answers centered on policy change and contacting elected officials. Others asked why rescue ships are being held at the ports, leading to discussion about the legal entanglements that now restrict these boats from aiding refugees. Despite there being less rescue boats navigating the Mediterranean and a drop in migration via this route, often attributed to slowing of violence in the Syrian Civil War, there is still a need to assist refugees.

Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan Engaging with a Student. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On November 12, the sequel to this three-part series, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part II: Focus on the United States will be held at Birmingham-Southern College and followed by the third event in early 2019, at Samford University, where action planning around this global issue will take place. Please join us for the following events whereas every voice and helping hand counts.

Where Do We Go From Here? An Event Recap

On Wednesday, February 28, the UAB Institute for Human Rights hosted Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child, to talk about her experiences working in war zones. During her conversation entitled “Where Do We Go from Here? Stories from the Frontlines of the World’s Major Crises”, Dr. Nutt covered topics from ranging from personal stories from her time in Somalia to gun violence statistics in the United States. You can read more about her background here.

The illicit and licit automatic weapons market is incredibly saturated in Somalia and the United States. In this post, I argue that this oversaturation and easy access creates a gateway for violence.

Dr. Samantha Nutt at the UAB Hill Student Center Ballroom
Dr. Samantha Nutt. Source: Tyler Goodwin, author.

Recap

The talk began with Dr. Nutt explaining how she began working in warzones – she was a volunteer doctor assigned to work in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, Somalia. She was contracted by an organization who was unable to pay her more than one dollar for her services, yet she decided to go anyway. To this day, Dr. Nutt carries with her the four quarters she received as payment.

Living in Somalia, Dr. Nutt met many people who considered this crisis area as their home. She told the story of a woman named Edith, who was a single mother who came to Dr. Nutt for medical assistance. The first time Dr. Nutt met with Edith, she was told of when Edith attempted to take her newborn child to the medical facility that was down the road. On the way there, she was ambushed by a group of boys armed with firearms who would not let her pass until she paid them a toll even though she possessed no money. As a result of being denied access to the medical facility, Edith’s child died due to malnutrition.

After suffering the loss of her child, Edith asked, “Do people where you are from know what is happening? Do they know what we go through?” Dr. Nutt replied with “I am afraid not.” On the international black market, an AR-15 can be purchased for ten dollars or less apiece; this happens in Somalia and many other states, according to Dr. Nutt. The AR-15s found in Somalia are commonly made in the United States. Upon further research, Dr. Nutt revealed that other women in surrounding villages were blockaded from accessing medical facilities by young men wielding guns as well.

Dr. Samantha Nutt giving her lecture with gun violence statistics in the background
Dr. Samantha Nutt with gun violence statistics. Source: Tyler Goodwin, author.

“Globally, we are currently spending about $249 per person on war; that is twelve times more than what we spend on humanitarian assistance across the world.”

Glancing at the statistics, one may assume that, globally, we prioritize the sale of guns and military weapons over the safety and welfare of humans. At home and abroad, we are quick to sell a rifle but question whether or not humanitarian action is necessary at every turn.

Dr. Nutt told of another visit by Edith, immediately after Edith was subjected to an act of violence. Dr. Nutt was in her office with her phone, laptop, water, and other items an average American would consider a necessity. Edith pointed Dr. Nutt’s possessions and said, “all of this is for you. We die for nothing.”

Addressing the faults of a failed state is necessary. Ignoring these issues perpetuates cycles of violence we see in war-torn Somalia, which causes Edith and countless other people to lose their families and threatens their very existence. Education provides the tools to combat issues that threaten peace. With knowledge of what is happening in Somalia, we are indirectly fighting for Edith and the other Somali citizens that say they “die for nothing.”

“We begin to tip the balance in favor of peace when we question the institutions that infringe upon it.”

Dr. Nutt also presented on the massacre in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen high school students were murdered. She mentioned the gun used in the Parkland shooting was the same grade as the ones commonly used in Somalia to block access to health facilities. Bangalore and Messerli of the American Journal of Medicine argue that the easier it is to access firearms, the higher the chances of violence are. With the average price of an AR-15 being about ten dollars on the black market, it is safe to say that these firearms are easily accessible.

In Dr. Nutt’s recent post on the Parkland shooting titled “The Kids are not Alright,” she calls for legislative action within the United States by citing other nations’ gun control legislation:

“…every developed nation that has imposed stricter gun control in the wake of mass shootings saw a precipitous decline in mass shootings and other gun related deaths. In Australia mass shootings dropped by 93% percent after a successful government gun ‘buy-back’ program following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, which saw 35 people slaughtered. In the United Kingdom, after strict gun control measures were introduced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre of 15 kindergartners, there has not been another mass shooting in the 22 years since. Gun homicides have dropped to one third of their former levels. In Canada, a country with looser gun laws than the UK but tighter controls relative to the United States, gun related homicides are 8 times less per capita than the country’s southern neighbours.”

We have seen the Parkland shooting survivors gather support across the nation and assemble at our nation’s capital. By calling for change, they are calling for their form of peace. This is not to say that all gun owners disrupt that peace, but a military grade assault rifle should not be available for purchase on the black market for ten dollars and should not be available to purchase at your local Wal-Mart.

Dr. Nutt concludes by stating, “It does not matter how much you give, it matters how you give.” In her post mentioned above, she says, “Political candidates who openly advocate for gun control need financial and volunteer support. And those who resist gun control measures should be actively and consistently opposed, until NRA endorsements and contributions are seen as politically toxic.”

Human rights education gives us the tools to prevent acts of violence and teaches us how to fight against it when we see it. Like the students of Parkland, it is our duty to fight for our peace both at home and abroad. By fighting against the oversaturation of guns and regulating the market here in the United States, we can hope that the number of guns circulating through the black market, and ultimately Somalia, will decrease. As human rights activists, it is our duty to fight for peace. So, where do we go from here? We go toward peace.

Peace sign
peace. Source: Ken Swinson, Creative Commons

“Invest in peace, not war.”

To see more upcoming events hosted by the UAB Institute for Human Rights, please visit our events page here.

 

Disclaimer: emboldened quotations were provided by Dr. Samantha Nutt on the February 28, 2018 IHR Event.