Who Will Be Held Accountable for Starvation in Yemen?

Mass starvation is a white-collar war crime. When there’s a man-made famine (the gendered language is deliberate–we have yet to witness a women-made one), there can be no excuse that the deprivation was perpetrated in the heat of the moment, or by rogue elements acting beyond orders. This is the case in Yemen today: four and a half years after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a war to oust the Houthi militia that had taken over the capital Sana’a, the population has been reduced to abject poverty and hunger. It would be suffering widespread famine were it not for an international aid operation, delivering essential food and medicine against the odds.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Human Rights Commission heard expert testimony that, for the first time, raises the possibility that a war crime of starvation may have been committed, and suggests that those responsible should be brought to court. In a wide-ranging report, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen expressed their ‘deep concerns that starvation may have been used as a method of warfare by all parties to the conflict,’ noting that, ‘these acts may lead to criminal responsibility for war crimes.’

What is the nature of these crimes and who might be called to account? The war in Yemen tragically provides a multitude of starvation crimes, enough for a skilled and creative prosecutor to test the boundaries of the law in several different ways.

Some instances of hunger as a weapon of war are immediate and tactical, bringing soldiers face-to-face with their victims. In the siege of the city of Ta’izz, for example, the Houthi militias blocked food supplies from reaching parts of the city where pro-government militias were holding out. There and elsewhere, both Houthis and pro-government militia commanders have blocked aid convoys or stolen their supplies for their own use. The level of obstruction and theft reached such proportions that earlier this year the World Food Programme threatened to suspend its aid unless it could guarantee better access.

In other cases, the attacker is more remote from his victim: airstrikes by Coalition warplanes have destroyed hospitals, water wells, agricultural dams and fishing boats. According to the Geneva Conventions (and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court), it may be a war crime to destroy, remove or render useless “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population”—a category that includes not just food, but also water, medicine, blankets and shelter. Credible evidence collected by monitoring groups shows that these attacks are systematic and persistent and cannot be put down to targeting errors.

But the bigger story—and the wider significance of the UN Group of Experts report—is that these blatant uses of starvation are not the biggest reason why Yemen has been reduced to such abject destitution. The tragic irony of Yemen today is that food is still available in the country. Before the war, Yemen imported over 80 percent of its staple food, and its commercial food contractors had become experts in negotiating their way along the country’s troubled highways. With just one interruption—a short-lived total blockade on imports imposed by Coalition warships in November 2017—food imports have continued. The main problem is that people simply don’t have the money to buy it.

As the (Nobel laureate) economist Amartya Sen noted almost forty years ago, ‘Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat, it is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat.’ Sen wrote from his own personal experience of famine in Bengal, where out-of-work laborers starved to death within sight of well-stocked markets. Today in Yemen, economic policies meant that millions of ordinary people—among them teachers, local government officials, factory workers, and in fact anyone working for a wage—have often been left unpaid, out of work, or simply unable to buy food on their meager salaries.

Three policy decisions were key. The first was the decision—by both the Houthi authorities that had occupued the capital Sana’a, and also the internationally recognized government headed by Abdel Rabbu al-Hadi which had fled to the southern city of Aden—to run down currency reserves to pay for the war. This caused inflation: while salaries stagnated, the cost of food rocketed. At the same time, the Central Bank restricted its credit to food importers, forcing them to raise prices.

The third decision was the transfer the Central Bank of Yemen from Sana’a to Aden, enacted by the al Hadi government at the behest of its Saudi and Emirati patrons three years ago, and to cease paying the salaries of civil servants. Millions instantly lost their income; and their families began to go hungry. Unlike in a famine caused by drought and crop failure, where farmers starve, in Yemen the hardship fell hardest on city dwellers who suddenly had no wage packets.

It’s widely accepted that economic doctrines and policies, however malign their aims or disastrous their outcomes, aren’t considered international crimes. Economic policies may result in violations of the right to food or health—but these cannot be prosecuted in an international court. The Group of Experts for Yemen described the deleterious effects of those policies, but didn’t infer any criminality.

But there’s a chance to pursue the wrongdoers more vigorously. The very same men who dictate those cruel economic policies are at the same time ordering military attacks against food supplies and medical facilities and hampering essential relief supplies. On its own, failing to pay salaries to a million desperate civilians isn’t a war crime. But when it is implemented, with inhuman consistency over more than three years, alongside attacks that are undeniably war crimes, it becomes part of the case for a high-level conspiracy to starve a people into submission.

In the months and years following the September 2016 transfer of the Central Bank to Aden, those in positions of power—in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as well as Sana’a and Aden—became well-informed about the devastating effects of their economic war and their military attacks, and had every opportunity to stop. For more than two years, they refused to relent. Only last December, pressed by United Nations mediators o hold back from an all-out attack on the port of al-Hudaydah which would have cut the main humanitarian artery to the starving population, did they show some mercy, and begin to loosen the noose.

Precise figures are hard to come by, as the authorities on both sides haven’t allowed surveys of nutritional status and the number of children who have perished. In November last year, Save the Children estimated that 85,000 children had died of malnutrition—this is likely an undestimate.

Famine in Yemen isn’t a crime like a massacre, which can be committed in a few minutes by a hotheaded officer commanding a single military unit. This is a crime more like corporate malfeasance, its effects unfolding over years in relentless but intricate ways, as hunger and disease seek out the most vulnerable.

The Group of Experts blamed both sides for starvation, scrupulously even-handed in allocating responsibility—but the reality is that the Coalition, with its far greater resources, did far more to inflict starvation, and far too little to prevent it.

Human rights activists and international criminal lawyers should demand that the highest political authorities responsible for Yemen’s starvation should be brought to justice. The finger points directly to the leadership of the Houthis and the internationally-recognized government, and to Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed of the UAE.

It is unlikely that any of these culprits will be hauled before the International Criminal Court or arrested by the magistrate of a country such as France or Belgium, on the grounds that their national courts have jurisdiction over international crimes. But that shouldn’t deter human rights activists from making  the legal case for prosecuting starvation crimes.

First, it clarifies the law, and thereby guides those countries that still avow the rule of law—including the U.S., U.K. and France, which have been arming the Coalition members fighting in Yemen. The leaders of these nations will not want to be exposed as accomplices to a criminal conspiracy to commit starvation crimes.

Second, every culture and faith condemns those who starve the innocent; the opprobrium resonates around the world and across every political divide. The days are gone when a leader could point to his crimes as his credentials, earning the sobriquet “the great” on the basis of a resumé of massacre and famine. The current administration rightly condemned the Assad regime’s use of starvation tactics in Syria; it should be challenged to show the same standards for Yemen.

And perhaps most importantly, laying the charge of starvation against the men responsible is a moral service to the victims. Those who have survived famine too often emerge feeling ashamed, stripped of dignity, weighed down by a sense of personal failure—the mother who failed to feed her own children; the family who turned away their hungry neighbors. As with survivors of sexual violence, they need solidarity and encouragement to stop blaming themselves, and instead should be empowered to look their tormentors in the eye and say, you did this to us. Western nations, which have done far too little for far too long, owe at least this to the people of Yemen.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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