By Sid Bagri, MA student at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS.
Even when broken down into statistics, the humanitarian toll is sobering. With 10,000 civilians dead, 22 million in need of aid, 8 million subjected to famine, and 1 million infected with cholera, the results of the disastrous Yemen war speak of a conflict that has been handled well outside the bounds of acceptable conduct (Bazzi 2018). As counterintuitive as it may seem, the international rules and norms that govern war serve an important purpose in limiting civilian casualties and keeping savage weapons and tactics from being used on the battlefield. These guidelines have been routinely flouted during this war and the reputational spill-over effect has begun to affect Western countries involved in the conflict. The United States in particular has willingly mired itself in what is increasingly an endless war under the pretense of assisting its Saudi ally, but this excuse grows more flimsy with every new horrifying revelation about the humanitarian cost. Despite all this, the Yemen war has drawn scant attention in the West due to the current crisis in legitimacy of the Liberal world order constructed largely by America. All across the Western world pundits have been bemoaning the fact that the Liberal order has come under attack from within and repeatedly talk about the importance of maintaining the rules based system that has served the world since the end of World War II. The current war in Yemen is an example of how the rules based order continues to crumble, but it also presents an opportunity. The best way for America to uphold the Liberal order is to start abiding by the rules that help maintain it, which in this context would mean ending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and any further involvement in the war. The best way to accomplish this goal is start abiding by the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).
The ATT is one of the UN’s more recent endeavors which only came into force in 2014. The treaty’s goal is to regulate the sale of conventional weapons such as planes, tanks, and guns in the arms market (Kimball 2016). The key tenet underpinning the treaty is the idea that countries should limit or eliminate weapon sales to certain regimes if they have good reason to believe that these weapons will be used to ignore international law or violate human rights (Kimball 2016). So far, every country in the European Union has signed and ratified the treaty, but predictably, Russia and China have refused to take either of these steps. The US, under President Barack Obama, signed the treaty, but the Republican controlled Senate refused to ratify it (The Economist 2018). The Trump Administration’s well-known disdain for multilateralism means that the treaty will likely never be ratified. However, a country can still take steps to abide by the treaty even without ratification, and it is in this endeavor that America has failed spectacularly. The ATT has failed in its goal of limiting atrocities because powerful Western nations have chosen to ignore it. Saudi Arabia does not pretend to care about human rights and yet the West continues to overlook this problem in order to pursue narrowly defined interests, which in this case is supporting a supposed ally in a regional proxy war that has tenuous links to US national security (NY Times 2018). Donald Trump and his staff have made no secret of their fondness for the Saudi autocrats which has been best exemplified by their willingness to not just push weapon sales through congress but also to deploy US Special Forces to directly aid the Saudi regime (Hume 2018). These actions have removed all doubt that the US has been implicated in the Saudi campaign that has often resulted in the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the obstruction of humanitarian aid. The easiest way for America to limit the violence, salvage its reputation and reinforce the rules based order is to start abiding by the ATT by stopping weapon sales to Saudi Arabia.
It is in America’s long term interest to abide by the ATT. The resurgence of right-wing nationalism across the West has presented an existential threat to the very idea of an international community with common interests. Multiple European demagogues have questioned the existence of the European Union in the name of reclaiming sovereignty and this has put Europe in its greatest predicament since the end of World War II. The current American president is actively undermining the global economic system and prefers bilateral dealings with foreign countries instead of multilateral partnerships. It is only a matter of time before this phenomenon truly begins to affect global organizations like the UN, and if this happens international law will be further weakened. America more than any other country benefits from the international system it has built and it has allowed America to expand its presence across the world, and continuing to supply weapons to the war in Yemen would show the world that America’s commitment to the global order is surface level at best. The US is no longer in a position to pick and choose which laws it wants to follow. Rising authoritarianism means that the US must whole-heartedly commit itself to protecting and upholding international law if it wants the world to take it seriously on issues of morality. Without this commitment, criticizing the immorality of authoritarian regimes such as the Saudi’s will look more like opportunism rather than a genuinely held value.
There is also a short-term interest in avoiding the Yemen war. The possibility of America becoming embroiled in yet another unwinnable war in the Middle East cannot be ignored. The US is currently engaged in a war in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq which never really ended, as well as drone operations active in several countries across Africa and the other parts of the Middle East (Liautaud 2018). Every single one of these conflicts increasingly looks intractable, and becoming involved in another war in Yemen, officially or otherwise, would only serve to further drain the US of its power and prestige while accomplishing little in terms of national security. The cost of disengaging from this conflict would no doubt be interpreted as a slap in the face towards Saudi Arabia, a close ally, and this concern is worth considering, especially in a region where stable governments are increasingly a rarity, but the cost of continued engagement could well be more dire due to all the reasons previously discussed. When looking at the misery and destruction that this war has inflicted on Yemen, it is reasonable to conclude that bloodying ones hands in order to avoid disappointing a supposed ally is a poor reason to keep engaging. If it is indeed too late to stop the carnage, the least America can do is avoid further implication in it.
Liautaud, Alexa. 2018. “White House acknowledges the U.S. is at war in seven countries”. Vice, (accessed October 15th 2018), https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/a3ywd5/white-house-acknowledges-the-us-is-at-war-in-seven-countries
Kimball, Daryl G. 2016. “The Arms Trade Treaty At a Glance”. Arms Control Association, (accessed October 15th 2018), https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/arms_trade_treaty
Bazzi, Mohamad. 2018. “The war in Yemen is disastrous. America is only making things worse”. The Guardian, (accessed October 15th 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/11/trump-yemen-saudi-arabi-war-us-involvement-worsening-crisis
- “A UN treaty to regulate the global arms trade has little impact”. The Economist, (accessed October 15th 2018), https://www.economist.com/international/2018/08/18/a-un-treaty-to-regulate-the-global-arms-trade-has-little-impact
The Editorial Board. 2018. “Why Are American Troops in the Yemen War?”. The New York Times, (accessed October 15th 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/opinion/american-troops-yemen.html