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The conflict in Yemen is one that began in 2004, but greatly escalated in the fall of 2014 when the rebel group known as the Houthis increased their attacks on the Yemeni government

Beyond the Local: Yemen’s Effects on International Processes for Justice and Peace

May 1st, 2015

By Lauren Stauffer – Research Assistant

Before Saudi-led airstrikes began to target the advancing Houthi rebels in Yemen at the end of March, two international processes for peace were occurring whose chances for completion are now threatened by the unfolding crisis in Yemen. The first, and lesser-known, process centers on the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) attempts at securing the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the court under charges of war crimes in relation to his involvement in the 2003 war in Darfur.  However, requests for al-Bashir’s arrest will likely continue to be ignored by the international community due to his decision to participate in the coalition in Yemen, and thus, join forces with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Britain, and the United States.  The conflict in Yemen is also threatening the successful completion of Iranian nuclear negotiations due to the conflicting engagement of Iran supporting the Houthis and the United States aiding the opposing coalition.  As a result, Yemen has evolved into another conflict that can potentially obscure the processes for justice and peace elsewhere as noted by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who warned that “the coalition air raids – and the continuing attempts by the Houthis and their allied armed groups to expand their power…have turned an internal political crisis into a violent conflict that risks deep and long-lasting regional repercussions”.  The escalating crisis in Yemen, therefore, does not only devastate local lives and communities, but it also holds the capability to thwart processes for international diplomacy.

The conflict in Yemen is one that began in 2004, but greatly escalated in the fall of 2014 when the rebel group known as the Houthis increased their attacks on the Yemeni government and Sunni-supported President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Houthis, which represent a minority of the Yemeni population and whose followers adhere to the Shia strain of Shiite Islam, receive support from Iran and have used the momentum from this support and their growing national popularity to capture much of Yemen, including the capital of Sana’a, as well as ousting President Hadi from the capital and his stronghold in the south.  Following the administration’s loss of power to the Houthis at the start of 2015, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and including members such as Jordan, Egypt, the United States, and five Gulf Arab states, responded in March to the Yemeni president’s request for intervention by launching airstrikes targeted at the Houthis.  Saudi Arabia aims to have the aerial campaign “restore stability to Yemen by crippling the Houthis,” whom they see as an instrument of Iranian power, and to ultimately facilitate “returning President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi…back to power”.  The United States has not only praised the Saudis for their leadership in the campaign, as expressed by Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken regarding the administration’s approval of Saudi Arabia “sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force,” but also announced on 7 April that it would expedite the delivery of weapons to aid in the offensive.  In response, Iran, who views Yemen as a regional power struggle between themselves and the Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, sent a naval destroyer to waters near Yemen on 8 April while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also criticized the Saudi-led airstrikes as being “wrong” and a “mistake”.  Thus, the international powers’ responses to the conflict in Yemen reveal how an internal war is quickly manifesting into a global crisis with far-reaching effects.

One such effect is the conflict’s lessening of international focus and pressure with regards to the ICC indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.  President al-Bashir, who came to power after a coup in 1989, is suspected of committing genocide and war crimes in the ongoing civil war that is occurring in the nation’s western region of Darfur, which, since its outbreak in 2003, has claimed at least 400,000 lives.  In 2009, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese President on the basis of holding him responsible for ten counts: five counts of crimes against humanity, two counts of war crimes, and three counts of genocide.  Without its own police force to enforce such orders for arrest, the ICC must rely upon the cooperation of member states.  However, given President al-Bashar’s willingness to provide assistance to the Western-supported anti-Houthis coalition, such cooperation is being disincentivized. Hence, it is unsurprising that member states, such as Britain, are turning a deaf ear to the ICC’s requests and are, instead, accepting Sudan as an ally in the fight against the Houthis.  For Sudan, this strategic maneuver not only solidifies al-Bashir’s position in the upcoming presidential election, but it also proves to the local Gulf States that Khartoum can be a “reliable partner” within the region.  Therefore, the crisis in Yemen has thwarted the ICC’s continued attempts at holding al-Bashir accountable for his involvement in Darfur by allowing international powers to replace their long-held pursuit for justice with a pursuit for national stability.

The Yemeni conflict also holds the potential to disrupt the already-tense Iran nuclear negotiations, which negotiators are hoping to transform into a finalized and comprehensive deal by the end of June.  Although a joint statement was issued on 2 April on behalf of Iran and the P5+1 members, which consists of all five members of the United Nations Security Council as well as Germany, regarding the agreed upon framework for the future of Iran’s nuclear program, major discrepancies between Iran and the United States’ understanding of the negotiations have emerged.  These discrepancies include different interpretations of the restrictions that are to be imposed on Iran’s enrichment and research programs, the future of Iran’s Arak heavy-water reactor, the modification of international sanctions and the implementation of inspections.  Thus, by taking place in a contentious environment with a deadline that is fast approaching, the possibility of the negotiations being derailed is already high and only increased by the conflicting American and Iranian stances regarding Yemen.  Recognizing the potential threat that Yemen poses to the negotiations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued the first explicit American accusation that vocalized their beliefs that Iran has been supporting the Houthis militarily and, in an interview conducted on 8 April, warned that the U.S. is “well aware of the support that Iran has been giving to Yemen and that Iran needs to recognize that the United States is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized or while people engage in overt warfare across the lines.”  However, even with Secretary Kerry’s warnings, which only confirmed the fears of analysts who believe that Yemen may further complicate the deal, both Iran and the Saudi-led coalition show no sign of stopping as more weapons are delivered and naval vessels are dispatched to Yemen.  Hence, the vulnerability of the Iranian nuclear negotiations is dangerously heightened due to the Yemeni conflict and could result in the failure of the talks, which would negatively impact the security of many countries, like Israel, that actively oppose Iran.

So often, national and regional conflicts emerge that threaten the well-being of many citizens, communities, and states.  In Yemen, the World Health Organization has reported that 540 people have been killed and 1,700 wounded by fighting since 19 March, which has caused the international community to grow concerned about an impending humanitarian disaster in the Middle East’s poorest country.  However, the threat that Yemen holds for the global community unfortunately extends beyond its death toll.  In both the instances of the ICC’s request for President al-Bashir’s arrest and the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the internal nature of the conflict in Yemen is threatening to disrupt long-standing processes that could improve international peace and justice.  Even with diplomatic efforts currently underway for a ceasefire to halt the month-long aerial campaign, such peace is neither guaranteed to be agreed upon or capable of guaranteeing long-term stability. With the looming threat of resuming violence from either side, policymakers must consider the impacts that their militaristic decisions and interventions will have on local tensions and external relations, such as the ICC and international negotiations.

About Lauren Stauffer

Lauren Stauffer is an Associate Fellow in the Security and Defence division. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut where she is studying foreign relations history, specifically in regards to U.S.-NATO relations, and human rights. Lauren received a B.A. in History (Hons) from Vassar College and wrote her senior thesis on the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. During her undergraduate career, she also studied abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Previously, Lauren has worked at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center and served as a Vassar Ford Scholar. Lauren’s research interests include transatlantic relations, Western security, humanitarian intervention, multilateral institutions, human rights, and post-conflict reconciliation.