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There is a Responsibility to Protect in Yemen

BY Hussam Althiyabi



There is a Responsibility to Protect in Yemen

Justifying acts of aggression and seeking legitimacy from others for certain behaviours is an ancient international political precept. At times this process tends towards legitimacy through power, where might makes right, while at other times a more consensus form of legitimacy reflects the zeitgeist. At the time of this writing, the international order is based on a mixture of legitimacy generators: self (re: power) and international (re: via institutions and/or institutional conventions). This research assesses the legality of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. The work is divided into two sections: First, it discusses the responsibility to protect (R2P) and the conditions necessary for the international community to embark on collective security measures in order to preserve peace and security. The work then assesses the Yemen intervention according to the R2P.

Contextualising R2P

R2P was developed to set the criteria needed for states to forgo state-sovereignty and intervene in another states’ domestic affairs. R2P sought to determine whether such interventions could be legitimate under certain circumstances and has come to reflect areas the Westphalian system neglects and to provide cover for states to intervene in cases where grotesque crimes against humanity are underway—as a means of protecting human life. This concept came on the heels of the monumental failures of the international community to prevent genocidal crimes in Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia Herzegovina (1992-1995). The turbulence of the 1990’s gave rise, in 2001, to a new energy to reflect on sovereignty and its limitations which produced the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). (1)

The report of the ICISS sought to build an international consensus on how to act in the face of massive violations of human rights and prevent other genocides from occurring (2). Indeed, the report laid out three ‘responsibilities’ for states to accept when applying R2P namely: 1. the responsibility to prevent—re: sovereignty is not only a right, but a responsibility to protect citizens’ rights, 2. the responsibility to act—by the international community to prevent massacres and 3. the responsibility to rebuild—implying interveners’ obligations to rebuild damaged sites and provide necessary goods after an intervention.(3)

Consider, for instance, the case of Libya in 2011 where the application of R2P was utilised since there was a case for showing that the Muammar Qaddafi regime in Libya had targeted its citizens as mass civil disobedience transformed into open insurrection. The United Nations Security Council issued several resolutions to signal resolve to Qaddafi—but Tripoli ignored them. With further documentation of crimes against humanity reached the UNSC, it adopted resolution 1973 which constructed the legal basis for the international community to intervene and protect Libyan civilians under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (4). The resolution included a comprehensive package of coercive measures — re: arms embargo, asset freezes, travel bans and a referral of the situation to the ICC — to persuade the Qaddafi regime to end its operations. A no-fly zone was also established to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) — which assumed responsibility in this case — to apply R2P rules—resulting in regime change in Libya. While war rages on in Libya, it is likely that the application of R2P preserved untold lives at the time. Unfortunately, the coalition in that campaign did not appear ready to accept the responsibility to rebuild and much of the current crisis in Libya is testament to that shortcoming.

Others have learned from the Libya case.

Saudi-led Intervention in Yemen: Legal After All?

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia led a coalition to intervene in Yemen. UNSC resolution 2216 noted that the intervention was a response to the letter from the President of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, which

“requested from the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and the League of Arab States to immediately provide support, by all necessary means and measures, including military intervention, to protect Yemen and its people from the continuing aggression by the Houthis.”(5)

The situation in Yemen is somewhat unique since the responsible party is a non-state actor — albeit sponsored by a state: the Islamic Republic of Iran — which threatens the lives and livelihood of Yemen’s civilians. The resolution requested Ansar Allah (re: Supporters of God a.k.a. Houthis) to respect the rule of law and refrain from undertaking further actions that threaten stability in the country. The Houthis disregarded the resolution and subsequent demands. Ansar Allah rejectionism, coupled with the dire situation facing Yemen’s people, Saudi Arabia stepped-up and applied the R2P to return the country to greater stability. Saudi Arabia and its many allies embarked on their mission in Yemen assuming the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to act and the responsibility to rebuild.

From the beginning of the intervention, the Saudi-led collation sought a peaceful and political solution in Yemen that respects the rule of law. While the coalition applies military force to punch open humanitarian corridors while degrading the ability of the Houthi to strike population centres in Yemen (and in Saudi Arabia and the UAE) it has always kept open channels for a negotiated settlements. Note, for instance, the Stockholm/Riyadh agreements, welcomed by the international community but rejected or dealt with falsely by Ansar Allah (6).

And, learning from the errors of Libya, the Saudi-led collation has taken the lead in reconstruction efforts in Yemen—even as the conflict ebbs and flows. For instance, the King Salman Relief Centre has done several key projects, and offered tremendous financial support, as part of the reconstruction effort in Yemen. Such projects include: the Emergency Response for Hygiene and Sanitation in the Aden Governate and to Provide and Distribute Food Assistance in Yemen 2020 (7). Also, Saudi Arabia founded The Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen (SDRPY) which aims to reconstruct the road and transportation lines for civilians. These initiatives show the commitment by the Saudi- led coalition that aimed to protect civilians in war and after. It is also worth noting that the UN’s World Food Programme relies on KSRelief and Saudi Arabia and its allies (re: Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait etc) to fund their Yemen projects. This extends beyond the delivery of foodstuff. For instance, KSRelief has helped clear anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines in Yemen in order to facilitate logistical activities of the UN and other national and international agencies working in the country (8).


The coalition that intervened in Yemen did not do so to expand a sphere of influence or as a symbolic gesture to shore-up international support. The Iran-backed Houthis had seized the core of the country, internally displaced the President and cabinet (along with hundreds of thousands of others) and continue to threaten civilian lives in Yemen and regional stability. Diplomatic efforts bore no fruit. The coalition jelled together with a single mission, to support Yemen’s civilians. In the fog-of-war, at times, errors have been made and those errors have been deadly. But the main objective of the coalition is base around the R2P doctrine and should be regarded as such.


  1. Burke-White, William W (2011), ‘Adoption of the Responsibility to Protect,’ (2011). Faculty Scholarship at Penn Law, available at
  2. IBID. The author refereed to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), The Responsibility to Protect: Report of The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, International Development Research Centre 2001, available at <>.
  3. IBID.
  4. UN Security Council, Security Council resolution 1973 (2011) [on the situation in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya], 17 March 2011, S/RES/1973(2011), available at
  5.  UN Security Council, Security Council resolution 2216 (2015) [on cessation of violence in Yemen and the reinforcement of sanctions imposed by resolution 2104 (2014)], 14 April 2015, S/RES/2216 (2015), available at:
  6. The Saudi-led collation efforts continued to reach the cease fire in Yemen in these days due to Coronavirus situation. though, Houthis have repeatedly violated the ceasefire agreement.
  7. The King Salman Relief Centre supports major Yemen projects, available at:
  8. For details on the clearing of landmines see: ‘Saudi Project for Landmine Clearance,’ KSRelief available at: <>.