Yemen and World Law: Building from Current Experience


Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

René Wadlow

René Wadlow






“Shall we not learn from life its laws, dynamics, balances? Learn to base our needs not on death, destruction, waste, but renewal?”  Nancy Newhall

The indiscriminate bombing of cities in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition highlights the need for renewal of the way that humanitarian law is observed in times of armed conflict especially in three areas:

  1. the protection of women,
  2. the prohibition of starvation of civilian populations as a method of warfare,
  3. the protection of cultural heritage.

Protection for women is enshrined in international humanitarian law, which as world law should be binding on both States and armed opposition groups. This body of world law includes the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 written in light of the consequences of the Second World War and their two Additional Protocols of 1977 written due to the experiences of the war in Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia. (1)

In addition, the human rights standards as developed within the United Nations prohibit torture, unlawful killings, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention and slavery. Women should also be kept safe from the use of prohibited weapons such as chemical and cluster weapons.

In international humanitarian law, women are afforded both general protection − on the same basis as men − and special protection reflecting their special needs as women. They are specially protected against attack, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution or indecent assault. The ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda were steps in the development of world law with the prosecution of rape as a war crime. Furthermore, under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and other forms of sexual violence constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and are war crimes. (Article 8 of the ICC Statute)

The fact that women have to bear so much of the burden of armed hostilities is primarily not because there are shortcomings in the rules and norms but because the norms are not sufficiently observed. Basically, compliance with the rules of international humanitarian law is based on self-restraint on the part of soldiers and other armed forces. While perpetrators of war crimes should be brought to justice, either at the national level or by international courts, this is rarely the case. Thus, it is the moral sense of the soldier, his sense of honor as to the code of the military profession that is the most immediate safeguard of civilian populations. There have been cases of airmen who refused to drop bombs on cities and villages where there are obviously civilians, but such cases are relatively rare. (2) I have not heard of cases in the Yemen conflict, but they are probably not highlighted by the military media people when they do happen.

Another consequence of the bombing in Yemen is the starvation of the civilian population due to lack of food and water. Due to the widespread use of defoliants in the Vietnam War, there was written as Article 54(2) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I, a prohibition to destroy foodstuffs, crops, drinking water installations and irrigation works. Yemen is, at the best of times, short of food and drinking water installations. The bombing has deliberately increased the hardship as well as increasing the number of displaced people with resulting lack of access to food and water.

The need to protect works of art and cultural heritage has been a theme of efforts by UNESCO. Sections of Sana had been placed on the UNESCO list of cultural heritage of humanity due to the elaborate woodwork of doors and balconies, the result of skills that have largely withered away in modern times. These works of folk art have been destroyed, not as a policy such as that of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq but as a result of bombing. Nevertheless, the result is the same: items of value have been destroyed and are unlikely to be replaced when houses are rebuilt.

The aggression against Yemen has created a moral vacuum, an area devoid of the most basic human values both within Yemen and in the countries attacking it.


  • See D. Schiller and J. Toman. The Law of Armed Conflicts (Martinus Nihjoff Publishers, 1988)
  • For cases of Israeli airmen who have refused orders to bomb in the Gaza Strip and south Lebanon see Chem Ben-Noon Civil Disobedience: The Israeli Experiences (Paragon House, 2015)


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Aug 2015.

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