The U.S. intelligence report released last week that implicates Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is only more evidence that it is time for a fundamental change in the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Toward that end, President Joe Biden’s earlier announcement that the United States will stop supporting the Saudi-led war in Yemen was meant to send a clear message: the Saudis will no longer have a blank check in Yemen.
That is a first step toward ending the conflict, but it is only that. Having enabled an armed conflict that has left tens of thousands of civilians dead and millions facing starvation, the United States must do more to restore peace in Yemen. For six years, the Saudis have waged a disastrous military campaign, dropping American- and European-made bombs on civilians, in clear violation of the laws of war. The conflict — for which the United States must take some responsibility — has been so destructive that United Nations officials call Yemen “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” As part of its new push to resolve the conflict, the United States must also back Yemeni civil society’s efforts to ensure real accountability for the crimes committed, and for the lives destroyed. For many Yemenis, it is not U.S. bombs that are the greatest enemy to lasting peace – it’s impunity.
For years, Yemeni researchers and advocates have documented horrible crimes and abuses by all parties to the conflict, from indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes to arbitrary detention, while thousands of families search for the whereabouts of loved ones who’ve been forcibly disappeared. Undeterred by the global pandemic, warring parties have pushed the country to the brink of famine, with nearly 325,000 children under the age of five suffering severe acute malnutrition. No parties have been held to account for abuses.
A lasting peace in Yemen will require addressing this legacy of impunity. Foreign powers with outsized influence over the war in Yemen have sidelined questions of accountability. It is now time for the United States and the international community to put Yemenis at the center of their policy on Yemen by throwing their support behind the country’s civil society. A Yemeni vision will be essential if there is to be political support, and at a later stage, endorsement for accountability and transitional justice.
Doing so means backing Yemeni civil society’s recommendations for not just ending the conflict but for restoring civic organizations decimated by the war, and it means helping Yemenis disrupt the cycle of impunity that threatens to undercut any peace agreement.
First, the United States should act to protect civic space and support civil society in Yemen, including by swiftly condemning harassment and reprisals by any party to the conflict against humanitarian and human rights organizations, as well as victims’ groups. Civil society is perceived as one of the few neutral constituencies in today’s Yemen, and these leaders are positioned to play a primary role in framing how durable peace can be achieved in Yemen, including the interplay between redress and peace with accountability.
The United States should also help channel support for Yemeni civil society so they can safely meet, deliberate, learn valuable lessons from other countries, develop and debate proposals, and forge national ownership over accountability mechanisms and redress for violations. Doing so would help create avenues for Yemeni civil society, victims’ groups, and family associations to decide what transitional justice is and should accomplish for Yemen. Having such processes led and owned by civil society can help empower citizens emerging from years of conflict.
“Transitional justice can make people feel that they are at the center of their own world,” as one Yemeni civil society leader told us. “That they are the subject of rights and duties. That they can create.”
Second, the United States and others can support Yemeni civil society to explore new means of redress not only for grave human rights abuses, but also for economic and social violations and the enormous and varied costs of the conflict to Yemen and its people. From the punishing Saudi blockade and weaponization of humanitarian aid, to the Central Bank crisis and war profiteering, a report our organization, the Open Society Foundations, released recently finds that many Yemenis put a high priority on addressing economic crimes and grievances. New tools and methods to document the economic and social costs of war are needed. These would support the future establishment of innovative redress options and reparations for victims. It also could set a standard for such measures to be included in other post-conflict settlements, too.
Finally, these commitments should be backed up with greater leadership by the United States and other members of the U.N. to advance accountability. Since 2015, references to accountability and transitional justice in Yemen have been gradually dropped from Security Council resolutions. Last week, a Security Council resolution adopted on Yemen underlined the need to ensure accountability for violations and abuses in Yemen. This was the first time since 2015 that a Security Council resolution mentioned accountability. States need to do much more to reincorporate language on accountability into all Yemen-specific Security Council resolutions and other United Nations relevant instruments.
If accountability in Yemen isn’t pursued today, it is because the alternative – impunity – has been made too easy. To restore U.S. leadership and values, the Biden administration needs to do more than stop selling bombs to the Saudis. It must help give Yemenis a real chance to confront impunity and decide for themselves what justice should look like.