Operation ‘Decisive Storm’: Between Collective Self-Defense and Legal Ambiguity

The Yemeni conflict is taking headline news. It’s not that Yemen is usually considered peaceful. On the contrary, Yemen has long been plagued by a series of conflicts, natural disasters, political changes, unification and separation movements, more than most countries. However, even while being the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC’s) troubled child, it came as a surprise to many when 10 countries declared war on Yemen, lead by Saudi Arabia(KSA). Understanding the Yemeni conflict is far more complicated than this blog post would allow me to explain. However, what is important to understand is that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked and took over the country from KSA backed President Hadi, and KSA and the ‘Decisive Storm’ coalition maintain that their involvement to right the wrong done by the Houthies is lawful under international law.

Al-Arabiya news Collective and IndividualSelf-defense

Saudi Arabia has been very clear about the fact that this military action has an element of self-defense. The Gulf Cooperation Council recognized that the heavy artilleries military drill, conducted by the Houthi rebels on Thursday, 12 March on the Saudi-Yemeni borders was hostile behavior. Both the timing and the method of those drills are seriously called into question. From a legal standpoint, the argument in favor of Saudi Arabia would claim that the actions of the Houthies were a threat of use of force, which, according to UNGA resolution 2625, such a threat “violate the existing international boundaries of another state”. Those “drills” came with Saudi claims that Houthies have attacked their army before on the borders according to Reuters. Under such circumstances, Saudi Arabia can claim their inherent right of self defence under article 51 of the UN charter. The biggest flaw of the Saudi directed argument is that according to both Saudi Arabia and the international community, the Houthi rebels are an illegitimate militia, and hence, do not act on behalf of the state. Although article 51 does not specify that an armed attack needs to occur by a state, UNGA resolution 2625 assumes that a state would be the entity, which “threatens” the use of force, not an armed group. Hence that claim standing on its own does not provide enough ground for Saudi Arabia alone striking in Yemen. However, this is only the beginning of the justification.

The main threat is Iran’s involvement in the conflict. Iran unlawfully arms the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as support them ideologically. This is illegal, as arming and controlling a militia inside a country is considered infringing on state sovereignty, but Iran is not particularly shy about it. High religious clerks have been openly declaring that Yemen is within their sphere of influence. Houthi militias, on that note, progressed into Yemen, increasing their territorial control. Iran’s actions violate international law on many different aspects. First, arming paramilitary activities in another state, especially for the purpose of extending their political influence, violates any bases of friendly relations proposed in UNGA resolution 2625. Secondly, extending military aid to a certain militia for a specific political (or any other) reason is considered an act of aggression, according to the UN’s Definition of Aggression (Res. 3314, art. 3(g) & art. 5.1). Lastly, in the International Court of Justice case on Nicaragua, it was decided by the judges that the United States was violating international law “by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying…or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State”. This was seen as grounds for collective security; as such intervention in Yemen by Iran was considered a threat to the peace and security of the entire region due to Yemen’s geographical position.

The response came swiftly from Saudi Arabia. In a collective response, Operation ‘Decisive Storm’ witnessed perhaps the strongest Middle Eastern coalition of forces in history. Ten countries mobilized to strike strategic regions in Yemen. Also, Egyptian maritime forces were sent to protect the Gulf of Aden from any threat of closure from Iran and Houthies. The Arab League Heads of State summit, which followed, cemented the principal of collective self-defense by agreeing to create a “joint Arab military force”.

Operation Decisive Storm is being advertised as the last solution to a draining conflict in Yemen. The Gulf Cooperation Council has sponsored the Yemeni issue since 2011, starting many “initiatives”, which have ended in very little success because Yemeni factions continue to fight. More importantly, with the Houthi rebel’s swift accumulation of power on the ground, Saudi Arabia depicted Houthies as a threat to regional and international peace and security, after they became so close to controlling the Gulf of Aden. Additionally, operation ‘Decisive storm’ arguably took place when the threat was imminent, leaving no time for deliberation. It was also necessary as there were no peaceful means to solve this conflict, hence, following the US rhetoric on the preemptive use of force. The biggest problem with such a claim is that the Security Council did not get involved, let alone authorize the use of force in Yemen. This did not rally much criticism towards Saudi Arabia, even though there is a draft resolution being proposed in the Security Council on the conflict in Yemen with the Russian Federation holding a humanitarian stance, rather than a legal one, against the strike.

In both cases, however, there has not been a direct attack on either Saudi Arabia or other countries. However, the issue is being presented as though the Yemeni-Iranian attack is imminent. Under those circumstances, this is a pre-emptive self-defense, and the legal literature behind the legality of such attacks is covered intensely over the Iraq war of 2003. Even if such an attack is legitimate, is the response from Saudi Arabia a proportionate and deterrent response? It is far too early to constructively build an argument either for or against the Saudi-led attacks.

Intervention at the request of the legitimate president

It seems that this has been the new method by which countries justify intervention lately Saudi Press agencyin order to adhere to international law, and you cannot blame them. Intervention based on the request of the president or ruler of one state to suppress non-state rebel groups is perfectly legal under international law. In fact, countries like Egypt, and even Russia went though great lengths to confirm that the use of force in Libya and Crimea, respectively, were justifiable based on the presidents’ or legitimate rulers’ request.

The “legitimate” president of Yemen, Abdrubbuh Mansour Hadi, who has resigned when surrounded by Houthi rebels then retracted his resignation when he walked free, looked surprisingly elated upon reaching Saudi Arabia, after spending a few days in hiding. Firstly, there are question marks over his legitimacy as the president of Yemen, as he first resigned in January 2015, when Houthi rebels took over Sanaa, the main capital. He later rescinded the resignation, stating that he took this step under pressure from the rebels however this was prior to his request from the international community to intervene. Secondly, the level of conflict that was occurring prior to the Operation Decisive Storm was dire, to say the least, as expressed in the UN Security Council Resolution 2204 on Yemen, with multiple “terrorist” and paramilitary entities gaining effective control of major parts of the country. President Hadi’s decision to request intervention as he leaves Yemen for Saudi Arabia questions his control and influence over Yemen in the first place. Lastly, with President Hadi having little control over his country, is the situation in Yemen a civil war gone international? Nevertheless, Hadi further reiterated his request at the Arab League Heads of State Council in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last Saturday.

To conclude, it is important to understand that the Saudi/Arab Coalition involvement in Yemen is fairly recent. The legal questioning, let alone the justifications, have not been drawn out yet. It is, however, important to question the legality of the collective self-defense mission in Yemen, against the proxy-Iranian militia, with a political motive, under an ideological shroud. Additionally, the different interpretations, which will be given to this collective self-defense action versus the western-led ones, would be an interesting issue to observe. Finally, it is important to note that civilian casualties do occur, and hence, the humanitarian legal aspect should always play a part when assessing the success or failure of the operation.

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