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The Civil and Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen

Last week, Boston College Model United Nations hosted a speaker's panel discussing the ongoing civil and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The panel consisted of BC political science professors Ali Banuazizi and Jennifer Erickson, as well as PhD student Tyler Parker.

Answering a series of questions posed by BC Model UN Deputy Secretary Garrett Byrne, MCAS '20, the panel gave an in depth history and analysis of the conflict, examining the factors that led to its emergence, the course of the war itself, its global geopolitical implications, and its humanitarian impact.

The panel traced the origins of the conflict back to the early 1990s when Hussein al-Houthi founded a moderate religious group to serve the Zaydi community in northwestern Yemen. Although they are often grouped together with Shia Muslims, the Zaydis have their own idiosyncratic beliefs that distinguish them, and have been described as existing in a middle ground between Sunnis and Shia.

In 2004, al-Houthi was accused of plotting an insurrection and was killed by the Yemeni government. His death sparked a series of insurgencies led by his followers, seeking to both avenge his death and to establish autonomy in their homeland in the northwestern region of Sa’dah.

After dragging on for several years, the insurgency was revitalized by the Arab Spring of 2011, in which people across the Arab world attempted to overthrow their authoritarian governments with varying levels of success. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, longtime adversary of the Houthis, was overthrown by a coalition of rebel forces.

When this power vacuum emerged, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi replaced Saleh as president. However, it soon became apparent that the violence was not over, and in 2015, the Houthis overthrew President Hadi. This overthrow proved pivotal, as what had previously been a purely domestic conflict took on an international character when Saudi Arabia decided to intervene to return their ally Hadi to power.

The beginning of Saudi intervention dramatically changed the war, drawing international attention and marking the beginning of an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Although Erickson described the war as “unwinnable” for the Saudis, they remain committed to restoring the Hadi government at any cost to civilians.

Thirty-one percent of Saudi airstrikes have hit non-military targets, including one particularly tragic instance in which a school bus was struck. Additionally, the Saudis have initiated a blockade of Yemen, seeking to starve out the opposition. This blockade, centered on the important port city of Hudaydah, has had devastating effects, blocking shipments of medicine, fuel, and most importantly food.

As an arid country, Yemen mostly depends on imports for their food supply. Without these valuable resources, 85,000 children under the age of five have died from starvation or diseases such as cholera, which has broken out during the war. Additionally, 14 million Yemenis are estimated to be on the brink of starvation, placing the country on the verge of famine.

While this civil war has been going on for the past three years, it has only recently gained the attention from the media. Previously overshadowed by the civil war in Syria, Americans are now beginning to realize the atrocities occurring in Yemen, many of which have been committed with U.S. aid.

According to Banuazizi, one potential cause of this awareness may be the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. While unrelated to the war, this assassination has brought Saudi Arabia under widespread scrutiny, which has in turn led to an increased focus on their atrocities committed in Yemen.

In response, many have called for a termination of U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia. As a result of this pressure, the Senate voted to move forward with legislation calling for an end to U.S. support last Wednesday, although the chances of this measure passing the House or avoiding a Trump veto remain slim.

While this horrible conflict is expected to continue without an imminent end in sight, an iota of hope for reconciliation exists. This week, representatives of the belligerents will meet in Stockholm as part of U.N.-led peace talks, although Parker expressed skepticism toward anything fruitful coming of this meeting.

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