An analysis of the UN’s mistakes in resolving the Yemen crisis

The United Nations as an intergovernmental organization whose main aim is to maintain peace and security has failed in a number of cases; the failure which has led to hunger, death, and displacement of many civilians. The Yemen crisis is one of these cases. The following Op-Ed article tries to critically analyze the UN’s role in the Yemen crisis.

In his televised speech on March 11, 2021, on the anniversary of when the Prophet (s) received the first revelation (Eid Maba’th), Imam Khamenei, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution referred to the shared actions of Saudi Arabia and the US government in bombarding the oppressed people of Yemen and the economic siege on these people. He particularly focused on the performance of the UN in this respect. He stated, “As soon as the Yemenis do something, they cry out loudly “There’s been an attack. They’ve made a terrorist attack!” They all say such things. The UN also says such things, which is an even more despicable act than what America does. Well, America is an oppressive, arrogant government, but why the UN?! It does not condemn America for bombarding (Yemen) for six years. Instead, they reproach Yemen because it has defended itself on occasions and this defense has been effective. They all come and attack it (Yemen). This is a kind of lying.”[1]

On this basis, it can be concluded that the UN has made serious mistakes and errors in handling the crisis in Yemen. The present article is a critical analysis of the human dimensions of this crisis and the performance of the UN in this regard.

The human tragedy in Yemen

The military coalition’s attack led by Saudi Arabia on Yemen, referred to as Operation Determination Storm, started on March 25, 2015. These attacks have been made with the military, logistical and informational support of America and some European countries. Based on statistics from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 233 thousand people have died as of early September 2020. Of these, 131 thousand have died due to malnutrition, lack of health and medical services, and destruction of the infrastructures in Yemen. According to these statistics, 3,153 children and 5,660 preschoolers under the age of 5, including newborn babies, have lost their lives as the result of this war.[2]

Spending billions of dollars, Saudi Arabia has been continuously bombarding Yemen. It has destroyed a major part of infrastructures, hospitals, airports, schools, water supply systems, factories, and even the houses of ordinary people. As a result, Yemen is faced with the worst human tragedy in history. And women and children have particularly been afflicted with malnutrition, numerous diseases and death.[3] The UN announced in October of 2018 that 13 million Yemeni people suffer from hunger and famine, which is the worst famine over the last 100 years. This war has also led to the displacement of millions of people.[4]

An analysis of the Security Council Resolutions in reaction to the Yemen war

In reaction to the six-year war on Yemen, the UN Security Council has issued some Resolutions. In most of these Resolutions, an immediate ceasefire and negotiations between the two sides has been called for in a general and ambiguous way while emphasizing the condemnation of the Houthis and the need for maintaining the sanctions against them at the same time. The one-sided, biased performance of the Security Council against the Houthis and their ignoring the role of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their American and European supporters in attacking Yemen have resulted in the mentioned Resolutions not being accepted by all the sides involved in the war and the continuation of the war in Yemen. In Resolution number 2201 on the 15th of February in 2015, the Security Council condemned the Houthis on the excuse that they have hindered the process of a political power transfer and weakened security in Yemen. But no reference was made to the role of Saudi Arabia had played in Yemen crisis. It only emphasized the need for the quick removal of the Houthis from official positions and from the Yemen capital.[5]

In Resolution 2,204 on the 24th of February, 2015, the sanctioning committee’s activities to freeze the assets and property of the Ansarullah leaders and their allies and the imposition of financial and political sanctions were extended.[6] In Resolution 2,216 of the Security Council on April 14th, 2015, Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen was totally ignored and measures were only taken against Yemen. In this Resolution, the Houthis were asked not to take unilateral measures that may disrupt the transition of power.[7]

The most important point in the next Resolution, number 2,266, on February 24th, 2016, is that it showed concern about Al-Qaeda’s control of some parts of Yemen. In this Resolution, the Security Council held itself responsible for preserving the territorial integrity and independence of Yemen.[8] But no reference was made to the role of Saudi Arabia in using Al-Qaeda forces to attack the Houthis. It should be noted that Saudi rulers left the Al-Qaeda leaders and forces in Yemen and refused to arrest them in their endeavor to weaken the Houthis in their fight against them. For instance, in February of 2021, the UN report concerning the arrest of Khalid Batarfi, the leader of the Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, was denied for all practical purposes by issuing a new video from him.[9]

In Resolution 2,342 issued on the 23rd of February, 2017, the Security Council not only emphasized the provisions of the previous Resolution, the Panel of Experts of the Sanctions Committee mission for imposing sanctions on Ansarullah officials was also extended for one year.[10] Finally, in Resolution 2,402 of the Security Council on the 26th of February, 2018, the need for respecting international laws, human rights and international human rights laws was emphasized and the Security Council expressed its concern about the existence of obstacles to delivering humanitarian aid.[11] In the last Resolution issued by the Security Council concerning the Yemen crisis on the 25th of February, 2021, the one-year sanctions against the Ansarullah officials were extended, the conflicts around the city of Ma’reb, the Houthis’ attempts to seize this strategic city and their attacks on Saudi Arabia were condemned. And the Houthis were held responsible for the humanitarian and environmental problems in Yemen.[12]

The point that is worth noting is that the bombardment of Yemeni civilians by Saudi fighters has not been clearly condemned in any of the Resolutions issued by the UN. But the progress of the Houthis, the forces fighting the attackers for the strategic city of Ma’reb and the likely control of these forces over this city, which may change the balance of power in the war in favor of the Houthis, has led to the Security Council members’ concern causing them to issue Resolutions in this respect. This one-sided, biased attitude in favor of one of the sides involved in the war, which is a common trend in all the Resolutions issued by the UN in relation to the Yemeni crisis, has made Ansarullah unwilling to accept or execute the Resolutions issued by them. In contrast, Saudi Arabia, which is sure the UN will ignore its crimes, has continued to destroy Yemeni infrastructures and kill civilians.[13]

The UN Security Council’s mistakes in the Yemen crisis from the perspective of International Law  

Based on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and humanistic intervention in international law, if mass killing, war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and similar events occur in a particular country and the government of that country is unable or unwilling to support its citizens, the UN Security Council can issue permission for military intervention in that country to protect the lives of civilians. The principle of Responsibility to Protect was approved by the UN Security Council in 2006 and has been the basis for military intervention by some western countries in Lybia, Syria, the Ivory Coast, and other countries.[14]

In 2016, Amnesty International referred to Saudi Arabian attacks on civilian areas and schools using cluster bombs as being a violation of international humanitarian laws and a war crime against humanity.[15] In January of 2021, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator referred to the problem of the malnutrition of 16 million Yemeni people, the lack of medical services, the bombardment of cities and the fact that there is no sign of an end to this situation in Yemen. He asked for putting an immediate, unconditional end to the conflict.[16] Daniel Johnson, a UN expert who is a member of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, a subgroup of the UN Human Rights Council, referred to the actions of those involved in the war in Yemen, including them preventing civilians from gaining access to food and medicine, as a war crime.[17]

Accordingly, the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, which has been confirmed by the UN Security Council, requires that this council take military action to protect the lives of Yemen’s defenseless people. However, no such measure has been taken and all measures taken by the UN have been against the Houthis and the Yemeni nation. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has used this opportunity to continue killing the civilians in Yemen. In addition, the UN Security Council has refused to even condemn the military attacks of the Saudi coalition on Yemen and has held the Houthis responsible for the problems in this country. Based on the principle of the prohibition of the use of force in international law, governments do not have the right to use force or threaten each other except for the important exception of defending themselves against foreign military attacks. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and the other countries attacking Yemen were not the victims of attacks by Yemen, and Yemen did not even respond to the attacks made by these countries for a very long time.[18]

Another exception to the principle of the prohibition of the use of force based on Article 42 of the UN charter is when the UN Security Council sees that a country has threatened international peace and security or has committed an act of aggression. In this case, the Council can decide to use military force in a part of the world to restore peace and security in that area. While Saudi Arabia has unilaterally initiated an attack on Yemen, has bombarded schools, hospitals and the people in Yemen many times killing civilians, the UN is ignoring this matter. It has issued Resolutions condemning the Yemeni groups for fighting the Saudi aggressors and imposed sanctions on them. The conflict between the Security Council’s Resolutions related to Yemen with the provisions of the principle of prohibition of the use of force, which means approval of the Saudi military attack, challenges its legality. Therefore, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have deprived Yemeni people of their right to determine their fate by the use of force.

Yemen was not occupied by any foreign country to ask for help and intervention by foreign countries or international organizations, as in the case of the exiled government of Kuwait, to restore its sovereignty. Secondly, despite the claim made by Mansur Hadi and the five Arab countries interfering in Yemen’s affairs, there was no coup d’etat that overthrew a legal government. Rather, the realities of Yemeni society indicate that the Yemeni government was faced with public and widespread protests asking for restoration of their basic rights and participation in determining their fate. On this basis, no intervention could be made based on a request made by the president of this country who had resigned and justify an attack as being legal. Furthermore, based on the principle of the prohibition of the use of force in countries domestic affairs, which is a well-recognized principle of customary international law and has also been emphasized in the UN charter, the illegality of the Saudi attack on Yemen can be confirmed.[19]  

It should be noted that the mistakes made by the UN in relation to the Yemen crisis are more than the cases that have been mentioned. For example, in August 2019, an investigative report was published by Associated Press News Agency showing that more than 12 UN international aid workers, who had travelled to Yemen to help with the human crisis in that country, have been accused of corruption due to their signing dubious contracts, collusion with the various sides involved in the Yemen War to gain interests, undermining the monitoring process, and stealing from the international aid shipments to Yemen. In this investigation, it was found that the WHO inspectors were investigating the corruption of the staff in Yemen, such cases as appointing unqualified individuals in high-paying positions, depositing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the personal accounts of some of the staff, accepting tens of dubious contracts with no proper paperwork and the loss of several tons of medicine and fuel shipments to Yemen. At the same time, another agency of the UN, UNICEF, is carrying out another investigation into the corrupt actions of its staff in Yemen.[20]


Based on the principles of international law and particularly the principle of the prohibition of the use of force, Saudi Arabia and its allies’ attack on Yemen is not a case of legal defense. This is because Yemen has not attacked those countries. To the contrary, Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen is a threat to international peace and security, and the Yemeni groups have the right to defend themselves against the aggressors. Non-condemnation of the Saudi attacks on Yemen is a sign of the weakness and inactivity of the UN. On the other hand, based on the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, war crimes have been carried out in Yemen and the Security Council must take military action against Saudi Arabia in order to support civilians. However, all the decisions made by this Council have been against and to the detriment of the victims of this aggression.

























  • Saudi Crimes
  • United Nations
  • Yemen