Does Saudi Arabia have a Responsibility to ’Protect’ in Yemen?
It may be under pressure from the United States, but Saudi Arabia appears to be carrying on with its bombing campaign in Yemen, which began on March 25.
With relief officials calling the humanitarian situation in Yemen ’catastrophic’, the latest air strikes seem to have shot down any hope of a political deal between the two countries.
The Saudi campaign has been justified, at least in part, by the need to "protect" Yemeni civilians, and to see off the threat of escalating violence.
This sort of justification and this type of language are often associated with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Variously called a norm, a doctrine, and a principle, R2P has generated much controversy over the past decade.
At bottom, R2P represents two moral truisms: that states should protect their populations from atrocity crimes, and that if they fail to do so, the international community should step in.
What is special about R2P, however, is that it can function also as a framework for military intervention. Unlike other paradigms for military intervention, R2P is sanctioned by the UN, which adopted it unanimously at its 2005 World Summit. It also enjoys the support of leading critics of military intervention, such as Noam Chomsky.
But is the Saudi military incursion in Yemen an instance of R2P? Some of Riyadh’s leadership certainly seem to think so. The Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, told CBS, ’This is a war to protect the people of Yemen and defend its legitimate government.’
Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri [of the US-led Saudi aggression] told the Los Angeles Times, ’[Yemenis] elected Mansour Hadi, so we should respect the majority choice. Mansour has the responsibility to protect Yemen and the population against these ’militias’, and he called for help.’
For its part, the UN Security Council made Yemen the subject of one of its most unambiguous R2P resolutions back in 2011. It has since imposed asset freezes and travel bans on Houthi leadership, a partial arms embargo, and expressed its support for Yemen’s president-in-exile Mansour Hadi. However, it has not authorised military action of the kind that it did in Libya in 2011 - regarded by some as a ’textbook’ case of R2P military intervention.
Despite the R2P-style rhetoric, there are strong reasons to doubt that Riyadh’s incursion into Yemen is an instance of R2P. And Riyadh’s behaviour illustrates the shortcomings of R2P as a guideline for military intervention.
Firstly, evidence suggests that Saudi military action is exacerbating the situation on the ground, making the stated objective of protection a less likely prospect. Several hundred civilians have already been killed by the Saudi air strikes, some of which were ’in apparent violation of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war’, according to Human Rights Watch.
Furthermore, the campaign has proved a boon for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula... Under Saudi air cover, the group has consolidated and expanded its hold over [large swathes of] eastern Yemen.
What is also on display here is the optimistic - perhaps naive - view of R2P with respect to military intervention. Insofar as R2P is a guideline for intervention, it can be tied up with and implicated in the suffering that almost inevitably accompanies military action. For a guideline aimed at reducing suffering, this is quite a disquieting paradox.
Secondly, bombs will do nothing to rectify the structural issues plaguing Yemen. Such problems as chronic water scarcity, staggering unemployment, and explosive population growth cannot be solved by military intervention. If anything, intervention could serve to exacerbate them.
The third cause for doubt is Riyadh’s motivations, which the historical record suggests are almost purely geostrategic. Poor, unstable, and sharing a porous desert border, Yemen has long been a target for Saudi influence.... There isn’t the space here to fully delve into these countries’ shared history, but Middle East expert Graham Fuller’s summation that ’Riyadh is determined to keep Yemen supine, weak and under its control’ captures its essence.
What this serves also to highlight is that insofar as R2P is a language of international relations, it is open to abuse. States pursuing their geostrategic interests does not, in itself, preclude the invocation of R2P. Yet it offers a sharp reminder that R2P language - as with any kind of political language - can serve as a Trojan horse for ignoble aims.
2015 marks the 10th anniversary of R2P. The Saudi bombing of Yemen is therefore a timely case study. While not an instance of R2P, it offers insights into how it can be used .and abused, how it can succeed and fail. And from there, how it can be improved