Yemen facing humanitarian crisis as war takes devastating toll on civilians

One year on from the start of a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels, launched by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states, the air strikes continue as the increasingly complex war in Yemen shows little sign of ending. The impact on civilians has been huge: almost 6,000 have been killed, 2.5 million displaced from their homes, and almost 20 million people left without access to a regular food supply, safe drinking water or medical supplies. Whilst the world’s attention has been focussed on Syria, the destructive war in Yemen has left the country on the edge of ruin, and the population on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

The conflict has its origins in September 2014, when Houthi rebels based in the north of the country, launched an offensive against the government and seized control of the capital, Sanaa. The country’s President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was initially placed under house arrest, before fleeing across the border to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In the following months, the rebels quickly took control over almost all of western Yemen, whilst government forces retreated to the east. In the midst of the chaos, jihadist militant groups such as Al-Qaeda were also able to exploit the power vacuum and gain a foothold.

The Houthis, who constitute a minority of Yemen’s population, allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from power during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Saleh remained a powerful force in Yemeni politics, retaining the loyalty of a large portion of the security forces.

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Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, has been under the control of Houthi rebel forces since September 2014 (Image Source: Ferdinand Reus)

The major Gulf power, Saudi Arabia, looked on with increasing concern and interest as the conflict unfolded across its southern border. In March 2015, the Saudi defence minister Prince Salman quickly assembled a coalition of Arab air forces, including the UAE and Bahrain, and began a campaign of air strikes against the rebels on 26th March. Initially, the alliance hoped that their overwhelming firepower would turn the tide of the conflict within a few months; yet 12 months later, little progress has been made and civilian casualties are mounting.

Over the past 12 months Saudi Arabia has been increasingly involved, training and equipping forces loyal to President Hadi in an attempt to confront the rebels on the ground. Law and order has collapsed, leaving the country in a state of chronic disintegration with no central authority. In the East, the conflict has gained a new layer of complexity as armed militias and violent jihadist groups have emerged to play a more prominent role.

There is now growing international opposition to the bombing campaign, with the EU Parliament recently voting to call for the imposition of an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. However, not all world powers share this view, as the US and the UK have continued to supply aircraft and weapons to their long-standing regional ally Saudi Arabia, including precision-guided missiles which have been used in the air campaign.

Whilst numerous human rights groups have argued that civilians represent the majority of casualties from air-strikes, the Arab coalition has said that its targets are chosen carefully, and continue to insist that they abide strictly to international rules on the conduct of war. Several previous attempts at peace talks in Switzerland have failed, but a new round of talks is due to be held in Kuwait in the coming weeks, initiating a renewed attempt to find a solution. However, as the war has become increasingly complex and more international actors have become involved, a peace deal any time soon is looking unlikely.

To understand the complexity of the conflict, it is important to look at the wider strategic context. The division between Sunni and Shia Muslims has long been a source of tension in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia (the most powerful Sunni state) sharing an intense and long-standing rivalry with Iran (the most powerful Shia state). The Houthi rebels in Yemen are also Shia, and are backed by Iran. In this context, the conflict in Yemen can be viewed as a sectarian, proxy war between the two regional rivals, with Saudi Arabia reluctant to allow one of its neighbours to be controlled by a Shia-led government, and determined to maintain its dominant influence in the Arabian Peninsula.

These tensions have flared up more visibly in recent years as the Middle East has entered a period of upheaval, and Iran has re-entered the international community after signing a nuclear deal with the West. As a result of these two factors, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has increased dramatically, with both states looking to increase their control and influence over the region, driven by a sense of paranoia and opportunity. In particular, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become more assertive and outward-looking since King Salman replaced King Abdullah in January 2015, revoking the country’s traditional diplomatic stance in favour of a more confrontational and active approach.

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A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has been conducting air strikes against Houthi rebels since March 2015 (Image Source: Ibrahem Qasim)

As this geopolitical game has extended its influence to Yemen over the last 18 months, it is civilians who suffer the worst consequences. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world before the conflict began, plagued by years of instability, poor governance and widespread poverty. Even prior to the conflict, 50% of Yemen’s population lived below the poverty line, whilst the youth unemployment rate was over 60%. Now, after 18 months of fighting, the humanitarian situation has ‘severely deteriorated’, according to the UN’s Human Rights Co-ordinator Johannes van der Klaauw. Since the conflict escalated in March last year, the UN estimates that 5,878 civilians have been killed and up to 30,000 wounded. The country’s infrastructure has been almost completely destroyed, and basic services have ground to a halt.

Both sides in the war have been accused of committing serious abuses, many of which amount to war crimes. Human rights groups have accused the Saudi-led coalition of using cluster bombs, and targeting homes, hospitals and factories. The Houthi rebels have also been accused of shelling residential areas and laying mines; whilst the UNHCR said in November last year, that it has verified more than 8000 reports of human rights violations since the conflict began.

Further exacerbating the effect on civilians, the Saudi-led coalition has imposed crippling import restrictions and a naval embargo on the country, resulting in severe food and fuel shortages. According to a UN report, 21 million out of Yemen’s 26 million population now require humanitarian aid, whilst 19.3 million are without access to safe drinking water, and 2 million people are ‘acutely malnourished’.  In addition, 14 million people lack basic healthcare due to the destruction of hospitals and a lack of supplies, whilst 1.8 million children have been unable to go to school. An estimated 120,000 people have fled the country, whilst those that do remain in Yemen, live under the fear of constant bombardment from aerial attacks and ground fighting. Humanitarian organizations attempting to work in the country have been severely hampered by funding difficulties and access constraints.

As each month passes, the situation for civilians in Yemen is becoming increasingly desperate. A solution looks to be a distant prospect, as the conflict continues largely un-noticed by an outside world focused on recent developments in Syria and Europe. Obscured from view, the war in Yemen shows little sign of ending, leaving its cities in ruin and its citizens on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

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Political crisis pushes Burundi to the brink of a second Civil War

Burundi is a state in turmoil: a political crisis accompanied by escalating levels of violence, is threatening to plunge the country into conflict – little more than ten years after the end of a devastating 12-year civil war which left 300,000 dead.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein, recently said that ‘’all the alarm signals – including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis – are flashing red’’ indicating that a ‘’complete breakdown of law and order, is just around the corner’’. President Obama has also expressed concerns, stating in November: ‘’from Burundi’s painful past, we know where this type of violence can lead. Leaders in Burundi have spewed hateful rhetoric, and terrible acts of violence have taken the lives of innocent men, women and children.’’

Since the turn of 2016 the situation has become far worse, as violence has continued almost un-noticed by the outside world. If the situation is not stabilized soon, Burundi’s unfolding crisis could quickly descend into a return to full-scale civil war.

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Burundi’s Civil War lasted for 12 years from 1993-2005, resulting in the deaths of more than 300,000 people (Image Source: AFRICOM)

The current crisis began in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third-term in office, in violation of the country’s constitution. In response, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest. Police responded by opening fire on the crowds, killing two people and wounding many others.

The violence has continued to spread and an attempted military coup was thwarted in May 2015, by which time more than 217,000 people had fled to the neighbouring states of Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Little has been done to bring the violence under control, with peace talks put on hold and the African Union (AU) opting not to send a peacekeeping force.

Over the past 10 months since the crisis began, the violence has escalated. Government forces have responded brutally in the face of opposition, launching a campaign of murder and intimidation in the neighbourhoods where the protests originated. An atmosphere of fear and impunity now prevails, as the independent media has effectively been shut-down, and human rights organizations have been forced out of the country.

According to the UN, at least 439 people have been killed in the conflict so far, whilst disappearances have become routine. The most widely-publicized act of violence to date occurred on 11th December, when security forces responded to an attack on military installations in the capital city Bujumbura, by executing at least 87 civilians within the space of just a few hours. The UN estimated that at least 130 people were killed in December, making it the deadliest month in the conflict so far.

There have been allegations of large-scale arrests and extra-judicial detentions in ‘secret prisons’, whilst there have also been accusations of torture and documented cases of sexual violence against women. Witnesses and satellite images have indicated the existence of at least nine mass graves, which have appeared in and around the capital in recent months.

When considering the historical context of violence in Burundi, the outlook for the current conflict looks increasingly dangerous. The previous civil war began in 1993, after the democratic election of President Melchior Ndadaye. President Ndadaya was ethnically Hutu; whereas previously the country’s political elite had been dominated by the minority Tutsi population. Just three months into his term, Ndadaya was assassinated, leading to a cycle of revenge attacks, after which the country became locked in a bitter, ethnic-based civil war.

The conflict ended in 2005 after 12 long years, which had resulted in 5% of the total population being killed, and thousands more displaced. A new era of democracy was ushered in with the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. Crucial to Burundi’s future stability and integration of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, the agreement recognized that the conflict was caused by ‘’a struggle by the political class to accede and/or remain in power’’, as opposed to being a result of ethnic hatreds.

The new constitution outlined a power-sharing structure and set a strict two-term limit for presidents. It was president Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third-term, in opposition to the constitutional limit, which initiated the current political crisis and ensuing wave of violence.

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President Pierre Nkurunziza’s run for a third-term in office, sparked Burundi’s political crisis which began in April 2015 (Image Source: World Economic Forum)

So far, the opposition movement has remained largely united across ethnic lines. However, this situation is dangerously at risk of fracture – a development which would almost certainly result in a rapid descent towards civil war. The government has been accused of playing the ‘ethnic card’, demonising communities and attempting to divide the population for their own political advantage.

The UN Special Advisor on Genocide, Amada Dieng, has spoken of this worrying trend, suggesting: ‘’we can observe today in Burundi, a clear manipulation of ethnicity by both the government and opposition. We know that ethnicity can be used to divide populations and spread hatred among them, which can have tragic consequences.’’

This worrying development, evidenced by the direct targeting of Tutsis by the security forces and more divisive government rhetoric, is a sign that the conflict is beginning to take on a distinctly ethnic dimension.

Some analysts have highlighted parallels between Burundi today, and neighbouring Rwanda in the build-up to its 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed. Others have argued that the current crisis has so far remained predominantly political in nature, and has not yet divided the population along ethnic lines.

However, in a country plagued by past conflict, and with its political leaders seemingly willing to incite hatred and stir-up existing divisions, there are growing signs that Burundi – a country which has enjoyed relative peace, stability and progress over the last 10 years – has been set on a rapidly deteriorating trajectory by its political elite, leaving ordinary citizens fearful of a return to civil war.