The continued aggression of Saudi Arabia against civilians in Yemen, and the use of cluster munitions (in violation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions), highlight the crucial links between human rights, arms control, and the resolution of conflicts through good faith negotiations. After a very short humanitarian ceasefire and proposed negotiations were scheduled to have been held in Geneva only to be aborted, the geopolitical situation in and around Yemen is largely unchanged.
With the armed conflict underway, the assault on human rights is evident. There is the direct targeting of civilians in violation of the fundamental right to life. As Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” International human rights standards derive from the concept of human dignity and worth. The range and depth of these standards has been a foundation of the emerging world society. War transforms the person with dignity into a faceless target.
Humanitarian Law (historically called the laws of war) is part of the essential components for human rights and the rule of law. International human rights law is, in principle, applicable to all at all times, both in peacetime and in times of internal and external conflict. Although Saudi Arabia was one of the few states to vote against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN General Assembly in 1948, the country has since accepted the values of the Universal Declaration. In fact, Saudi Arabia is currently a member of the Human Rights Council, which is mandated to protect and promote human rights.
However, the military action against Yemen has the potential for destroying the system of law governing the use of force. Saudi attacks are a violation of a central provision of the UN Charter, Article 2(4) − all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” This crucial provision was highlighted by the 1984 “Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace” which proclaims that the peoples of our planet have a sacred right to peace.
Humanitarian law is an important aspect of the world-wide rule of law as it limits both the arms that may be used and against whom they may be used. In 1968, for the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a resolution entitled “Human Rights in Armed Conflicts” was adopted by the Tehran International Conference on Human Rights. The resolution began by observing that “peace is the underlying condition for the full observation of human rights and war is their negation” but that “nevertheless armed conflicts continue to plague humanity.” It went on to call for new or revised agreements to ensure the better protection of civilians, prisoners and combatants in all armed conflicts as well as the prohibition and limitation of the use of certain methods and means of warfare.
Since then, there has been a progressive codification of humanitarian law protecting civilians against the destructive and blind effects of warfare. The 2008 Convention on the Ban of Cluster Munitions is the most recent addition to this body of world law. The Convention has been signed by 116 States but not by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and six other states involved in the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen. The Convention has also not been signed by Yemen and the USA.
In a May 31, 2015 report Human Rights Watch added additional information as to Saudi use of USA-made cluster munitions in Yemen. There had been a meeting of signatory States of the Convention in Vientiane, Laos in 2010. Laos had been the victim of massive cluster weapon use by the USA during the Vietnam War. In Vientiane, the governments pledged to “raise their voices and publicly condemn the use of these unacceptable weapons.” So far, the voices have not been raised very loudly, but Norway and Costa Rica have spoken out. Now is the time for clear protests on the part of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and persons of good will.
Basically, it is our task as activists and representatives of NGOs to call upon all the parties involved in the conflict within Yemen and in the Saudi-led coalition to good-faith negotiations, such as those which had been proposed to be held in Geneva. There is a mandate in the UN Charter for negotiations for the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and methods are set out including mediation, arbitration and judicial settlement. As in the Yemen conflict, there are both non-state militias from within Yemen as well as states involved; negotiations with a UN-appointed mediator is the most appropriate form.
In order to achieve peaceful conflict resolution, peaceful means must be employed so that common interests can be found. The failure of the parties to agree to meet in Geneva is an indication of the difficulties and the degree of hostility existing in this embittered and injurious struggle. It is during a time of war in particular that good offices by neutrals and mediators are of great value as the belligerents are not inclined to open peace negotiations on their own. As activists and NGO representatives, we can work to break down the psychological barriers among the parties and thus prepare the atmosphere to make negotiations acceptable to all so that compromises can be reached.
Rene Wadlow is President and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, of the Association of World Citizens