Model UN Hosts In-Depth Look at Yemeni Civil War

A panel discussed the humanitarian crisis evolving in Yemen as a result of the civil war between the Houthi movement and the Yemeni government in an event sponsored by Boston College Model United Nations (BCMUN) on Tuesday.

Garrett Byrne, BCMUN’s secretary of programming and MCAS ’20, moderated the panel, which was comprised of political science professors Ali Banuazizi and Jennifer L. Erickson and Ph.D. candidate Tyler Parker.

The panelists began by providing a timeline of events leading up to the current conflict. Parker explained that the events leading up to the Houthi uprising began in the 1990s with a moderate Islamic theological group called the Believing Youth, which eventually transformed into a different sect known as the Partisans of God. The group came to popularly be known as the Houthis, after its founder Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi.

Following the death of al-Houthi at the hands of the Yemeni government in 2004, the Houthis engaged in a series of six insurgencies against the then-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. These wars were intended to protect the Zaidi people of northwest Yemen, who faced persecution for their Islamic beliefs, which differed slightly from the traditional Sunni and Shiite branches, Parker explained.

The Arab Spring provided the backdrop for the rise of a new Yemeni president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, whose reign Parker described as being defined by “incompetence and corruption.” Houthi forces continued to oppose the Yemeni regime, eventually taking control of the presidential palace by January 2015. Hadi’s governing legitimacy was destroyed, and he has since been sequestered in Saudi Arabia with very little power over what remains of a unified Yemen.

Banuazizi contended that the Houthis—who had taken control over most of Yemen by 2015— are ultimately intent on becoming the country’s primary leaders. He was careful to note that the group is only one actor in a severely divided and polarized Yemeni political climate.

“There are all these other groups that were active at this time, and even within the new government that had been formed under the new president, there were all kinds of dissension within the military,” Banuazizi said. “It became an extremely mixed and difficult situation to sort out as conflict was raging between all these groups at the same time.”

The panelists then talked about Yemen’s evolving humanitarian crisis. From March 2015 to March 2018, there were 6,700 Saudi Arabian airstrikes, 31 percent of which hit non-military targets, Parker said in reference to the Yemen Data Project.

Erickson noted that the airstrikes have not been very useful for Saudi Arabia—they’ve done  less than the intended damage to the Houthis and rather destroyed the civilian infrastructure of Yemen, resulting in over 75 percent of the Yemeni population requiring humanitarian aid.

Banuazizi interjected to underscore the calamity of the humanitarian crisis, pointing out that about 85,000 children under the age of 5 have died from either starvation or disease during the course of the civil war. He estimated that an additional 15,000 civilians were killed during the conflict, not including the deaths of humanitarian workers, while another 14 million Yemenis—just under half the country’s population—sit on the brink of starvation.

The most interesting part about the humanitarian crisis, Parker pointed out, is that while there are around 2.3 million internally displaced refugees residing in Yemen, very few are attempting to flee the country. In fact, refugees are fleeing into Yemen from the horn of Africa, adding to the internal refugee crisis at hand.

“In order to be a refugee and flee you need resources and these are not necessarily people that have resources to leave,” Erickson said.   

The panel then began to discuss the international community’s potential responses to the crises. Erickson stated that the United Nations, along with some NGOs, has been able to provide some humanitarian aid but is very limited in doing much more, considering that countries like the United States, England, and France—all of which hold veto power in the U.N.—side with Saudi Arabia.

“Parties like the United States, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates are all giving a lot of money to the war, but they are also fighting the war,” Erickson said. “So you have this strange cycle where you have the U.N. trying to deal with the humanitarian crisis [and] given the funds to do that by the people that are also causing the crisis.”

The panelists then discussed what they believe the most logical steps forward are in terms of ending the conflict and salvaging life in Yemen. Parker and Banuazizi referenced talks among Yemeni players and members of the international community that are scheduled to take place in Stockholm this week, but Parker pointed out that Houthi representatives missed similar talks in Geneva in September.

Parker is not confident that Saudi Arabia will unilaterally stop the airstrikes either, which would allow the Houthis to potentially end the conflict. He asserted that, overall, the ideal way to move forward is to retool the U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for Houthis to leave their conquered areas and relinquish their weaponry.

“I’m not even convinced that the Houthis will show up to Stockholm next week, I don’t think there will be talks next week, and unfortunately I think that we will see this civil war and aerial bombardment continue into 2019,” Parker said.

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / For the Heights