by Eldar Mamedov
In the aftermath of the historic nuclear deal with Iran, as attention increasingly focuses on Iran’s supposedly menacing regional policies, the European Parliament (EP) has turned to a different target. At its plenary session in Strasbourg in mid-July, it adopted a strongly worded resolution condemning Saudi Arabian aggression in Yemen.
Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemeni Houthi rebels with the aim of restoring to power the internationally recognized president Abd Rabbou Mansour Hadi, now in exile in Riyadh. The resolution acknowledges Hadi as the legitimate president of Yemen and condemns Houthis for their violent unilateral actions. But this is a standard line of the “international community” as reflected in the UN Security Council resolution 2216 and in the EU Council conclusions on Yemen in April.
What is novel about the EP resolution is that it also explicitly condemns the Saudi Arabian-led, pro-Hadi, anti-Houthi coalition for airstrikes killing civilians in violation of international humanitarian law. Also known as the Law of Armed Conflict or the Law of War, these international rules requires combatants to take all possible steps to prevent or minimize civilian casualties. The resolution also condemns the Saudi-imposed blockade of Yemen. According to the UN, the blockade has had a dramatic impact on the civilian population, with 22 million people—almost 80% of population—in urgent need of food, water, and medical supplies. It also criticized Saudi use of internationally banned cluster bombs. It concludes that Saudi actions further destabilized the country and created better conditions for the expansion of terrorist and extremist organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The resolution is notable as well for what it does not say. Contrary to alarmist reports about the Iranian role in inciting Houthis to violence and attempts of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group to insert such language, the final text does’t even mention Iran once. In this, it reflects the prevailing view of European officials, including the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, that although Iran has increased its support for the Houthis—for example, with an air transport agreement and by dispatching additional advisors—there is no evidence of a substantial direct Iranian military involvement in Yemen.
More Than Just Sentiment
The resolution is to date the frankest condemnation of Saudi Arabian actions in Yemen by one of the main pillars of the EU. Although it is up to the Council representing the governments of the 28 member states to determine the block´s foreign policies, the EP resolution can turn out to be more than a mere expression of a sentiment.
In 2009 the Council has adopted the EU Guidelines on promoting compliance with international humanitarian law, establishing actions that the EU should take in response to violations. Some of them are fairly innocuous, such as raising the issue in dialogues with the third parties. But some really bite.
One of them is the use of restrictive measures/sanctions against state and non-state parties to a conflict, as well as individuals. So far, only the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and some Houthi leaders have been subject to individual sanctions for their role in the conflict, and rightly so. But given the sheer amount of destruction brought by Saudi-led airstrikes and blockade, it might be appropriate to include the responsible Saudi officials to the sanctions list. Considering the leading role played in this war by the Saudi defense minister and the new strong man of the regime, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the son of the king Salman, he should be an obvious target for inclusion.
The guidelines also establish that the EU should collect information that may be of use to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or in other investigations of war crimes. The difficulty in implementing this provision is the lack of an EU crisis-management operation in Yemen, and the EU’s diplomatic presence is thin on the ground since the eruption of the conflict in March. Also, neither Saudi Arabia nor Yemen signed the Rome Statute of the ICC, and thus neither recognizes the jurisdiction of the ICC. But, as the guidelines say, the EU should ensure that there is no impunity for war crimes. The mere determination to collect evidence, however difficult the circumstances, may have a deterrent effect on all sides during an armed conflict.
Finally, it is surely relevant not only in the Yemeni context, but in a broader Middle East as well, that the EU Member States should adhere to the Common Position defining common rules on control of exports of military technology and equipment. Among other conditions, it stipulates that an importing country’s compliance with international humanitarian law should be considered before exporting arms. EU countries with extensive arms trade with Saudi Arabia, such as the UK and France, are in breach of both the EU Common Position and the Guidelines on international humanitarian law. As a result of these purchases, Saudi Arabia outspends Iran on defense by a ratio of five to one. In 2014 Iran spent around $15 billion on military equipment, which is around 9% of total military spending in the Middle East.
Even if Saudi Arabia has not adhered to many of the relevant international conventions that form the backbone of the international humanitarian law, the EU should act in accordance with its own principles and positions—just as it did in countering Russian aggression against Ukraine. The MEPs should follow up on their resolution by mounting pressure on the executive branch of the EU to confront the Saudis over their actions in Yemen. This pressure should include threatening individual sanctions against those directly responsible for the violations of international humanitarian law.
American and European diplomats and policymakers will clearly have to balance humanitarian concerns with the need to reassure the Saudis over the regional implications of the nuclear deal they just concluded with Iran. But such reassurances should not obscure the basic facts laid out in the EP resolution. Although the level of Iranian meddling in Yemen is a matter of debate and speculation, the gross violations of international human and humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia are real and well documented. No amount of diplomatic reassurance will stabilize the Middle East if Saudi aggression is not stopped.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament. Photo: Mohammed Bin Salman (right) talks with Rear Adm. Andrew Lewis.