Accountability for Starvation Crimes: Yemen

Originally published



The war in Yemen has been fought using both economic and military strategies, both of which have contributed to the country’s descent into famine. The belligerents have conducted the war with good knowledge of how their actions will cause mass starvation. The greatest responsibility for the famine lies with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, followed by the Houthi militia and other armed groups. Yemen was already a poor country with a fragile economy, and before the war there was pervasive hunger, especially in rural areas. The war and targeted economic measures created another layer of food crisis: wider, deeper and more lethal.

The famine in Yemen has elements of both food supply decline and collapse in real demand (people’s ability to purchase food). It has many causes. First, are underlying economic vulnerabilities, including poverty, dependence on a few key economic sectors, and political tensions that have recurrently contributed to the worsening of the economy. Second, are the ways in which the country’s economic crisis was severely worsened by the war, including inflation and the rapid depletion of currency reserves which led to the Central Bank of Yemen adopting severe cuts in spending. A war economy of profiteering in the trade in essential commodities has also emerged. Third, are targeted economic measures by the Saudi-led coalition and its client the Recognized Government of Yemen (RGY), aimed at Houthi areas. These measures include non-payment of salaries, pensions and welfare; restrictions on money transfers; restrictions on travel; restrictions, delays and additional costs for importers of essential commodities; and blockade. Fourth, is destruction of objects indispensable to survival (OIS), including bombing of roads and bridges; attacks on critical infrastructure (electricity, water, irrigation dams, agricultural extension facilities); attacks on agricultural areas; attacks on markets and on private sector employers leading to bankruptcies and unemployment (and consequent collapse of real demand), and attacks on artisanal fishing. The Houthis are also responsible for actions of this kind, notably in the siege of Ta’izz. Fifth, is hampering activities indispensable for survival, including taxing movements of essential commodities (often multiple times at checkpoints), corruption in issuing trade licenses, and looting. All parties (including local armed groups) have engaged in this. Last is impeding humanitarian supplies and operations, through blockade and through the imposition of onerous restrictions, levies and fees.

The actions of the belligerent parties are culpable in varying degrees. As a general rule, economic policies, however severe their outcomes may be for human wellbeing, are not subject to criminal sanction. In the case of Yemen, the selective and targeted imposition of economic policies, when their impact in causing starvation had already become clear, may constitute the use of starvation as a method of war. The case for considering such actions as prohibited is strengthened by the evidence of other widespread and systematic uses of starvation as a weapon, by means of more clearly-prohibited military actions such as attacks on health facilities and fishing boats (by the Coalition forces) and by evidence for systematic smuggling and corruption (by the Houthis).