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The US’s Role in the Hidden Genocide in Yemen

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Schoolchildren stand on their destroyed school in the Yemeni city of Taiz.

The Arab state of Yemen has been locked in a civil war since 2014—a conflict that escalated significantly in March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition began air strikes against the Houti rebels. This coalition has been backed by the US and the UK, despite producing a humanitarian crisis that has left 8.4 million people on the brink of famine. 

SIS professor Jeff Bachman, director of the Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights Program at SIS, recently published an article for Third World Quarterly making the case that the violence and destruction in Yemen amount to genocide. We posed a few questions to Bachman to break this down further.

Read Professor Bachman’s full original article, “A ‘synchronized attack’ on life: the Saudi-led coalition’s ‘hidden and holistic’ genocide in Yemen and the shared responsibility of the US and UK,” with access provided by American University Library.

Q. You write that “Genocide conceptualized as mass killing limits the study of genocide to cases characterized by large numbers of deaths from direct physical violence.” Why is it important to reconceptualize the meaning of genocide?

There are two reasons why the concept of genocide needs to be revisited. First, the concept of genocide that is most commonly employed does not actually reflect even the very narrow one codified by the Genocide Convention. Even under this treaty, killing members of a group is but one means by which genocide can be committed. Other acts of genocide include causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting conditions of life on the group, which are calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Yet, the term ‘genocide’ is used almost exclusively as interchangeable with the mass killing of members of a particular group. This is not what Raphael Lemkin meant when he coined the term ‘genocide.’

The other reason the concept of genocide needs to be revisited is related to the first. Genocide is a crime that involves various attacks—physical and non-physical, direct and indirect—against a group’s existence. As the Genocide Convention was being drafted, the negotiating parties actively worked to strip the treaty of provisions that conflicted with their “national interest.” In doing so, negotiating parties actually changed the concept of genocide from that devised by Lemkin. In a forthcoming contribution to Palgrave’s Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism, I argue that the connections between genocide and imperialism found in Lemkin’s concept were actively negotiated out of the Genocide Convention by the imperial and colonial powers.

Q: What is a holistic or process-oriented conception of genocide?

A holistic concept of genocide is process-oriented. It takes into account the various ways the existence of a group may be threatened. It views physical, biological, and cultural attacks as equally genocidal in nature, while also recognizing the fluidity that exists between the three methods. Relatedly, it recognizes that genocide is not necessarily something that is ‘immediate,’ but rather an act that can be perpetrated over an extensive multi-generational period of time.

Q. How does using the traditional or canonical view of genocide obscure the genocidal nature of what is happening in Yemen?

If genocide is limited to mass killing by direct violence, some might argue that the term cannot apply to Yemen. Relative to the generally recognized cases of genocide (Armenia, Jewish Holocaust, Rwanda, etc.), a “substantial” number of Yemenis have not been killed by direct violence. However, between ten and twenty thousand people have been killed by direct violence and many tens of thousands more have been killed by deteriorating public health conditions directly related to the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing attacks and naval blockade. Additionally, Yemen’s rich cultural heritage has been deliberately bombed by the coalition. The direct and indirect physical attacks, public health emergencies, and cultural destruction together amount to a synchronized attack on life in Yemen.

Q. Briefly, what is the International Law Commission-based rationale for assigning responsibility for actions of the Saudi-led coalition to the US and the UK?

In the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, the International Law Commission established that a state can share responsibility for the wrongful acts of another state when it would be a wrongful act if perpetrated directly by the other state and if the other state is aware of the circumstances of the wrongful act being committed. In other words, two questions must be answered: (1) if the US and/or the UK were committing the same acts as the Saudi-led coalition, would they be wrongful, and (2) are the US and UK aware of the circumstances of the wrongful acts being committed by the Saudi-led coalition? Clearly, if the US and UK were directly committing genocide in Yemen, it would be wrongful. As for knowledge of the circumstances, the destruction of Yemen by the coalition has been ongoing for almost four years. The US and UK are well aware of the circumstances.

Q. You write that “even if the US and UK do not intend for their support to be used in the commission of genocide, it is irrelevant to the question of whether they are complicit in the genocide.” What is the basis for assigning responsibility to a state in this case, if intent is irrelevant?

In the case of Bosnia v. Serbia, the International Court of Justice established that shared intent is only relevant when considering whether a state conspired with another to commit genocide. For complicity, a state only needs to be aware that the aid it is providing to another state facilitates the crime being committed. In other words, if the US and UK shared the Saudi-led coalition’s genocidal intent, the aid they are providing would make them conspirators in the commission of genocide. Without shared intent, they are still complicit in the crime based on their continued material support, which has aided in the commission of genocide.

The military campaign in Yemen is approaching a four-year anniversary in March. Do you see an end in sight?

Unfortunately, I do not. As long as there continues to be outside interference in Yemen’s political affairs, the people of Yemen will continue to suffer in ways that go so far beyond the hardships that existed prior to March 2015. Any political settlement in Yemen ought to be determined by the people of Yemen.