A Yemeni child suffering from severe malnutrition is weighed at a treatment centre in a hospital in Yemen's northwestern Hajjah province, on October 25, 2018. Photo: Essa Ahmed / AFP

Hopes for an end to the war in Yemen have risen with the reported Saudi-led coalition’s declaration of a temporary halt to its offensive against Houthi rebels occupying the port city of Hodeida. Martin Griffiths, the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, is reportedly optimistic about bringing different sides of the civil war together for peace talks after securing an agreement for a Houthi delegation to attend a meeting in Sweden without fear of being persecuted by the Saudi-led coalition.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates, a significant partner within the coalition, has indicated its support for the “early convening” of UN-led peace talks to end the conflict.

Saudi Arabia’s controversial role in the widely publicized killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has spurred moral pressure on the countries supplying arms to the coalition to discontinue such supplies and push for resolution of the conflict. Of late, a bipartisan group of US senators has reportedly introduced legislation seeking to punish Saudi Arabia over the killing of Khashoggi as well as for its dubious role in the war in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the US Central Intelligence Agency has reportedly concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the assassination of Khashoggi in Istanbul last month. On the other side, there is an intensification of calls from aid agencies as well as diplomatic efforts by the United Nations and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt for a cessation in hostilities.

Temporary cessation of conflict would be significant in view of keeping people supplied with essentials like food and medicines and to combat diseases like cholera. The civil war in Yemen has precipitated conditions where people are denied their basic entitlements to food and living. Many people are still out of their homes.

However, this does not mean an era of peace will ensue in Yemen. Peace does not mean mere absence of conflicts and making basic necessities available; rather, it indicates presence of healthy socio-economic and political conditions that would enable people to develop their personalities and add meaning to their lives.

In countries seriously impacted by long-drawn-out civil wars such as Yemen, this means long-term engagement of the international community in dealing with the humanitarian crisis by instituting effective leadership, democratizing the distribution of resources, and socio-economic restructuring of society. If all these conditions for sustainable human life were created, there would be less chance for Yemen to spring back to a civil-war situation again.

However, while major actors of world politics have shown resolve in overcoming authoritarian regimes, conflict prevention and post-conflict stabilizing missions (Afghanistan and Iraq as classic examples) have not been successful, one of the primary reasons being that they have not received adequate attention.

Long-held divisions

Civil war in Yemen has been a continuous phenomenon and external actors have historically influenced the internal political developments within the country. For long, the northern part was rule by a monarch and the southern part was ruled by the British, and then came under the influence of the Soviet Union and its ideology of communism. There were periods of turbulence propped up by the Saudi-backed remnants of the monarchy and the Egyptian-backed republicans.

A political union between North and South Yemen in 1990 proved unable to end people’s divergent socio-economic and political expectations and roles. It is noteworthy that the inhabitants of the southern part have long accused the northerners of discrimination and unfair control over resources and sought separation from the north.

The UAE was allegedly involved in training and strengthening security forces in the south and emboldening them to seek independence from the north. In the context of continued dissidence of the southerners, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) assumed the status of the south’s de facto government.

The desire for independence among southerners pushed the country into a civil war in 1994, close on the heels of the political union. However, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who became the first president after the country’s unification, not only restored the union by securing a military victory over the south, he managed to sustain his rule until 2011.

Saleh’s long years of rule were marked by manipulation of the country’s tribal system in a bid to avert rebellion, and excessive reliance on external assistance and misuse of state funds to sustain it. However, external aid was rarely utilized to improve the conditions of the masses.

The UN Security Council found after his removal that he had amassed between US$32 billion and $60 billion through corruption during his 33 years in power. The leader also reportedly received tens of millions of dollars in US aid by helping American drones kill alleged al-Qaeda targets on Yemeni soil.

Then vice-president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a leader from the south, replaced Saleh, first through an internationally brokered deal and later was elected as president in February 2012. However, he failed to secure support from the people of the south, and the STC called for protests against the president and demanded the resignation of the prime minister, blaming his government for high-level corruption and misuse of state funds.

The rise of the rebels

Continued dissidence and feelings of alienation among the southern people kept the country’s unity and leadership weak and contributed to an exponential rise of rebels in the north, such as the Houthis, who shared a sense of economic and political injustice – although reported ambitions to revive imam’s rule in their rise to power cannot be ruled out. The Houthis are part of the Zaidi, a branch of the Shia Imamiya of Iran who ruled Yemen for more than a thousand years until 1962.

It is worthwhile considering that Saleh’s long undemocratic and corrupt regime contributed to the rise of many disgruntled groups in Yemen including the Houthis. The Houthis and the Yemeni government had been in confrontations since 2004 although much of the fighting was confined to the Houthis’ stronghold, Saada province. However, the rebels this time allied with the country’s ousted dictator Saleh to remove Hadi from power.

In September 2014, the Houthis not only took over the capital city  Sanaa but forced Hadi’s internationally recognized government to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. Ever since the rebel group has not only been able to extend its sway around much of the country’s south, they have also asserted their control over many provinces in the north as well, allegedly with support and arms from Iran.

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Arab states including Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Senegal in its bid to roll back the territorial gains made by the Houthis and secure its own influence.

Disease, famine, and civilian casualties

However, the continued battle pushed the country into a humanitarian catastrophe. Humanitarian conditions continued to worsen as the civil war escalated.

According to recent UN estimates, the civil war has pushed more than 22 million out of the total population of 29 million into dire need of humanitarian assistance, and around 18 million people are not sure of their next meal.

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian chief, revealed crucial statistics related to the damage done by the civil war and said that more than 8 million people were “facing pre-famine conditions, meaning they are entirely reliant on external aid for survival.” The country is also suffering from the worst cholera crisis in modern history.

More than 3 million Yemenis have fled their homes, and the continuing war has taken a huge toll on children, of whom around 50,000 were killed last year alone. At the beginning of 2017, the civilian death toll crossed 10,000, with at least 40,000 wounded.

Air, land and sea blockades by warring parties not only obstructed supplies of essential commodities such as food, medicine and fuel to the needy masses, but forced conditions of famine in the country, as much of 80% of whose food supplies are imported.

External powers so far have played a part in taking sides and escalating Yemeni conflict rather than preventing it. As signs of a lasting ceasefire become more clearly visible, efforts must be undertaken by the international community to take the country out of the socio-economic and political morass it has been undergoing.

This may amount to rebuilding the Yemeni society. Long-term solutions will require addressing people’s grievances against political leaders, their misuse of power and misappropriation of public funds. Attempts at addressing the grievances of the people of the country’s southern part must be part any peace plan for the country.

To facilitate and keep supplying food and other necessities to handle the famine may be effective for the short term, but the real challenge will be turning this food-importing country into a food-producing one. Children currently facing hunger and malnutrition need to be able to afford education and healthy lives.

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Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in international relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, India. Currently, he is working as a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India.