On Sunday 10th May, one of the F-16s of the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces involved in the international coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervening in Yemen went missing. For the following days, both sides- the Houthi and the coalition searched into what happened to this missing plane. The coalition concluded that the security and safety of the pilot is the Houthis’ responsibility. On Friday 15th May, the body of the pilot has been located and found dead and his body returned home later the same week. This incident highlights a broader question and issue in relation to current events in Yemen – whether the war in Yemen is an International Armed Conflict or Non-International Armed Conflict.
The historical background of the Yemeni situation is crucial to understanding the significance of this question. Yemen today is divided into a violent political struggle between two forces: the internationally recognized president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and his government and the Houthi militant forces, which pushed the president and his government from power and into exile and occupied the capital Sana’a. President Hadi announced his resignation and sent a letter of his resignation to the parliament stating that he could not continue in his office after the Houthis failed to honour a peace deal. Parliament has reportedly refused to accept the resignations.
These forces, few weeks later, dissolved the parliament and established what is called the revolutionary committee. Hadi had been under virtual house arrest in his residence in Sana’a for a month until he found a way to escape to Aden. Upon his arrival in Aden, Hadi withdrew his resignation and considered all the previous actions from the Houthi forces as a “coup d’état.”
On 25th of March, president Hadi asked the UN Security Council to authorize “willing countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression,” and his Foreign Affairs Minister Riad Yassin requested military assistance from the Arab League based on the collective self-defense doctrine under the article of 51 of the UN charter.
Internationalizing the conflict
The following day after request, the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia – backed with US strategic support – started launching airstrikes against Houthi bases in Yemen. The coalition insists on their right to respond to the requests and needs of president Hadi and to provide military assistance to the legitimate authority in Yemen. The intervention and the death of the Moroccan pilot raised the question of whether the Yemeni situation still is Non-International Armed Conflict or had it turned into an International Armed Conflict?
Bear in mind that all of the countries in the war including Yemen signed and ratified the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols I and II.
The situation in Yemen, before the coalition intervention, can be considered a civil war or Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) as per Common article 3 of the Geneva conventions and additional Protocol II. Common article 3 establishes the minimum standards of the laws of war, which are to be applied in an armed conflict taking place within the boundaries of a state, like the war between the government and a rebel group or two rebel groups. Common article 3 sets the minimum standards that each party in the conflict should be bound by during the conflict which focuses on treating non-combatants, the wounded and sick humanely and without any discrimination depending on race, color, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. The other obligations under the four Geneva conventions are not applicable during this kind of conflict.
After the international coalition military intervention in the war, this protection is limited in comparison with the protection under the four Geneva conventions and additional protocols I and II, especially after the increase of the Yemeni civilians’ death. The international coalition intervention in Yemen changed the situation on the ground. Therefore, we should accept that the coalition intervention affected the Yemeni situation and turned it into an International Armed Conflict (IAC), where the Four Geneva Conventions and additional protocol I apply, especially between Houthi militias and the coalition forces. Despite the fact that, the coalition intervened in the situation on behalf of the internationally recognized government, the effective control over the Yemeni territory remains in doubt as Houthi militias control the Capital, in addition to the massive amount of the death and injuries, this pushes us to consider the situation a International Armed Conflict, which would increase the need to protect civilians from the damaging results of the crisis and work towards the International Humanitarian Law principles.
The consideration of the Yemeni situation as a NIAC will put the international community in contradiction with the object and purpose of the four conventions because the Geneva Conventions were adopted to guarantee the protection of the civilians and military personnel who are no longer taking part in hostilities. The spirit of the provisions of the Conventions pushes us to adopt the four Conventions and to increase the protection for the Yemeni civilians, who are facing a humanitarian crisis because of the war. Indeed, if we cannot stop the existing war and the humanitarian crisis, we should at least increase the protection for the civilians and the military personnel and adopt the wide scope of the object and the purpose of the four Geneva Conventions. I’m advocating towards the implementation of the four Geneva Conventions and Additional protocols, as way to protect the nation from a full blown crisis.
Moreover, the fighters from the Houthi’s and the coalition should be considered combatants and if they are detained. In this case, the third Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War (POW’s) should be adopted. I believe that the Yemeni situation is critical and has transformed from a Non-International Armed Conflict into an International Armed Conflict, where the four Geneva conventions should be applied along with their protections. Therefore given that the Yemen conflict has become an international armed conflict, the countries involved in the Saud-led coalition and the Houthi militias need to act according to International Humanitarian Law and respect the rules of law, particularly the protection of civilians and POW’s.