Pandemic of Hunger Symposium

In the context of extreme food insecurity, such as in the case of Yemen, the destruction of sources of food and water has the potential to cause significant civilian harm.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021
Pandemic of Hunger Symposium

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Starvation by Warfare–The Campaign of Air Strikes Against Yemen’s Farms

The article was published on

May 18, 2021

Ali Jameel, Niku Jafarnia

“There are no alternative sources of food in this area other than farms.”

(Mwatana witness)

The Al-Aqil family lived and worked on a farm amidst the Tihama Plain, a stunning landscape stretching across the western coast of Yemen, and known for its fertile land. They lived as many in Yemen did prior to the conflict—spending their days working the land. But, on May 23, 2017, the Saudi/UAE-led Coalition bombed the Al-Aqil farm, wounding three family members, two of them children. Everyone on the farm was a civilian, and there was no known military target in or near the farm at the time of the attack.

The Saudi/UAE-led Coalition attack did more than just wound three family members, it also destroyed the farm’s water pump, as well as parts of the irrigation network (essential to the farm’s production) and a large quantity of crops. The farm became inoperable after the attack.

The attack left the family, and the 21 workers and families who had previously been living on the farm, without access to their source of food and livelihood. Ahmed Al-Aqil, the 48-year-old owner of the farm, said: “We lost our source of food and our source of income. […] but parts of the farm are still not cultivable.” Buying a new water pump, rebuilding the irrigation network and attempting to restore the land came at a crippling cost for the family, made more burdensome by the rapidly devaluating currency throughout the country.

There are many ways in which international law is meant to protect people’s right to food, including during conflict. Starvation as a method of warfare is considered a war crime under International Criminal Law. Further, International Human Rights Law provides a non-derogable right to food and water, which includes an obligation to refrain from undertaking activities which can have a direct impact amounting to the deprivation of a population’s food and water.

Most relevant to the strike on the Al-Aqil Farm is the prohibition of starvation as a method of warfare under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which specifically prohibits attacking, destroying, removing or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival (OIS) of the civilian population. Article 14 of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, applicable to non-international conflicts such as the war in Yemen, and which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen have all ratified, states that it is

“prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless, for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (OIS), such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works (emphasis added).”

The Al-Aqil family is not the only family in the area that has lost its source for food and income due to a Coalition airstrike. The airstrike on the Al-Aqil family’s farm was just one of a series of Saudi/UAE-led Coalition airstrikes that Mwatana for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni civil society organization, has documented over the last few years that have struck similarly situated farms and water sources in Yemen.

Mwatana has documented dozens of Saudi/UAE-led coalition airstrikes damaging and destroying farms, livestock, agricultural land, agricultural tools and equipment, and food in stores and vehicles in Yemen since 2015. Of these, approximately 30 occurred in Hajjah Governorate, where the Al-Aqil Farm was located.

Specifically, the Al-Aqil farm is in Al-Jer area of Hajjah, which is famous in the region for its fertile land and the number of farms located in the area. Since the start of the conflict, Mwatana has documented approximately a dozen airstrikes on farms in Al-Jer area alone. In the vast majority of these attacks, Mwatana did not identify any military objective on or nearby the farms at the time of the attack.

Through these strikes, the Coalition has destroyed many residents’ main source of food and income, leaving many food insecure and in fear of future attacks. One of the health workers in the area, said, “There are no alternative sources of food in this area other than farms. All the residents in this area are farm owners or workers.” He added that the farms were also “a good source of income as well, [as] many farms used to sell their crops in the markets of Hajjah, Sana’a and Hudaydah.” (Mwatana for Human Rights interview with Muhammad Siddiq on Dec 13, 2020.) A 40-year-old resident of the area, Saeed (a pseudonym), said “Many farms have stopped and become completely out of service.”

The evidence Mwatana compiled in the aftermath of the attack on the Al-Aqil farm, through site visits and interviews with witnesses, suggests that the airstrike destroyed OIS of the civilian population, including agricultural land, crops, and the farm’s irrigation networks. Moreover, the farm itself— a critical OIS—was rendered inoperable by the attack.

Neither Mwatana, nor any of those interviewed, identified military objectives at or near the farm at the time of the attack. The farm was located in a rural area and the nearest military target identified were frontlines about 60-80 kilometers to the south of the farm. Additionally, the attack occurred at 3:30 pm, a time that allows for good visibility and also a time when agricultural workers would usually still be out working on the farm.

In the context of extreme food insecurity, such as in the case of Yemen, the destruction of sources of food and water has the potential to cause significant civilian harm.

In March of this year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that by next month (June 2021), over 16 million people in Yemen (of a population of about 29 million) will face “high levels of acute food insecurity.” In February of this year the UN projected that “at least 400,000 Yemeni children under 5 could die of starvation this year.”

The issue of starvation is not new to Yemen—the WFP reported in 2014, prior to the current conflict, that approximately 41.3% of the Yemeni population was food insecure. But this phenomenon has been largely exacerbated in the current conflict—ACAPS has identified direct impact from the conflict’s violence to be one of the main drivers of food insecurity in Yemen, not only due to the physical destruction of agricultural infrastructure, but also due to the devastating effects the conflict has had on “productive assets, supply chain and trade routes, inflation, and access to markets.”

This series of airstrikes on farms is just one of many ways in which warring parties have contributed to starvation of the Yemeni population. The Coalition has attacked farms, water facilities, fishing boats and food markets, in addition to imposing an aerial and naval blockade since 2015 which has significantly impacted the flow of critical goods into the country. Ansar Allah has planted landmines in farms and near water sources. Ansar Allah, as well as other warring parties, have obstructed humanitarian aid and contributed to the catastrophic economic situation. The myriad of violations causing acute food insecurity in Yemen is currently the subject of unique investigative report produced jointly between Mwatana and Global Rights Compliance, due to be released in June 2021. This report analyses for the first time the patterns of starvation used by the two main warring parties, reaching conclusions as to the deliberate nature of the attacks.

However, despite the abundant documentation of the ways in which the warring parties have gravely exacerbated hunger in Yemen since the start of the conflict—including through violations of international law—to date, there is no international accountability mechanism examining these questions. The UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts, Global Rights Compliance, Mwatana and others have continued to investigate, report and call for a referral of the situation to the ICC or another accountability body since the start of the conflict, but there has been little movement on this front thus far.

The warring parties cannot claim ignorance. There has been widespread evidence for years of the impact of the conflict on food and water security, and organizations like Mwatana, as well as the UN Group of Eminent Experts and others, have reported on specific warring party practices that have severely impacted food and water security. These actions must be investigated further.

It is imperative that the international community call on the warring parties to end attacks and broader patterns of behavior that continue to contribute to starvation amongst the population in Yemen.

The international community must also take greater strides forward to hold the perpetrators behind the world’s worst, and man-made, humanitarian crisis accountable, and to ensure reparations are provided to impacted communities across Yemen.

The impact of attacks such as the one on the Al-Aqil Farm, and the broader impact of the warring parties on civilian access to food and water, is clear. Until states take resolute action to ensure attacks like these stop, Yemenis will continue to suffer.

[Ali Jameel is an Accountability and Redress Officer at Mwatana for Human Rights and Niku Jafarnia is a Legal Fellow at Mwatana for Human Rights. Mwatana for Human Rights, established in 2007, is an independent Yemeni civil society organization that advocates for human rights through the documentation of civilian harm, the provision of legal support to victims and through advocacy and legal action.]