February 4, 2022 | OPINION | By Zoraiz Zafar | Illustration by Iris Guo

When referring to the idea of proxy wars, most of the examples that come to mind involve the United States and the Soviet Union. However, the ongoing hostilities in Yemen have resulted in one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history, all because of a power tussle between two regional rivals.

In 2011, Yemen’s longtime autocrat, Ali Abdullah Saleh, stepped down after demands by the Yemeni opposition. This came following the Arab Spring protests. In the ensuing political crisis, Saudi Arabia managed to install a government, led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, that was widely conceived to be friendly to its interests. This was strongly opposed by the Shia-dominant Houthi movement, who Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival, Iran, has openly supported.

Initially, the Houthis engaged in political resistance, but after Hadi refused to cede power, they launched a full-fledged insurgency against the Saudi-backed government. In 2014, the Houthis were able to capture the capital city of Sanaa, causing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-led coalition, comprising mostly of Sunni-majority Arab nations, responded by launching an indiscriminate bombing campaign on Yemen.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project estimated that these bombings directly resulted in the deaths of over 13,500 civilians. Several legal experts and United Nations officials have speculated that leaders involved in this onslaught could be charged with war crimes. The list of government officials who face this prospect includes members of the Obama and Trump administrations who facilitated the sale of American bombs to Saudi forces.

The resultant humanitarian catastrophe has left 24 million Yemenites in need of aid and assistance. Many of them are children. In 2017, a cholera epidemic spread across the country like wildfire, hitting Houthi-controlled territory especially hard. Due to the closure of major Yemeni airports, some 9.8 million people have been left without the medical help that they need. To make matters worse, international donors decided to scale down donations in 2020, stating that it could not be ascertained whether the aid was going to in-need Yemenites.

The Saudi-led blockade of Yemen has meant that much-needed humanitarian assistance has failed to reach the general population. If the blockade is not lifted soon, it will result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children. To add to the misery of Yemen’s people, the Houthis, allegedly under Iranian directions, have refused to accept any form of Western assistance and have prevented international organizations from safely operating in the war-torn country.

The conflict escalated significantly in recent events. Houthi forces orchestrated a deadly attack on Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. In response, the Saudi-led coalition launched an airstrike against a detention center in the Yemeni city of Saada, killing 82 people. International organizations, including the United Nations strongly condemned the strike, causing the coalition to deny any responsibility.

As the Houthis plot their response, the global community must come together before the conflict progresses further up the ladder of escalation . The threat of war crime charges must shift from threat to litigation to dissuade further aerial campaigns against civilian installations.

Officials responsible for the sale of armaments to coalition forces should be brought under the same umbrella of accountability, irrespective of the government that they represent. The international community needs to send a clear message; regional rivalries can, under no circumstances, be allowed to cause a humanitarian calamity of epic proportions.

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