Yemen: Propaganda as “Cover” for Unpunished War Crimes

Fueled by sectarian fanaticism, the killing of innocent civilians continues in Yemen. Propaganda is the main tool for managing and influencing public opinion in times of war, and this war is no different.

The war in Yemen has received much attention in Arab and international media since the initial military intervention by the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) in March 2015. The launch of military operations has coincided with intensive coverage of daily incidents and atrocities of the war in Yemen by online, print, and social media.

Since the beginning of the war, the Arab media have lacked objectivity. The media’s bias towards one side or another has blatantly correlated with the policies of the countries that finance them. Some of the pro-Arab coalition media channels include Sky news, Al-Arabiya, and Al-Arabiya’s Al-Hadath. Pro-Houthi media channels include  Al-Mayadin, Al Manar, and Al Alam.

The Saudi media and their allies have sought to demonize the Houthis, accusing them of war crimes against innocent civilians in Yemen, as well as portraying them as inhumane. Conversely, media agencies close to the Houthis and their allies have highlighted the devastation and war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in airstrikes against civilians, and have focused on their brutality and apparent lust for blood.

The media have used regional and sectarian divisions to fan the flames of enmity between groups involved in the conflict. On the Al-Alam or Al-Manar channels, there is frequent mention of threats against Yemen by Al-Qaeda and ISIL.  They associate opponents and critics of the regime in Yemen with these groups to discredit them. In contrast, the media such as Al Arabiya and Sky News use other characterizations, sometimes even for the same group of people, to describe their enemies as Iranians or Houthis. Human rights and other activists and independent organizations are also criticized by media on both sides of the conflict.

Last week, media on both sides of the conflict engaged in a widespread campaign both to justify and make accusations regarding the killing of 55 unarmed civilians in an airstrike on Al Thawra Hospital and a fish market in the Yemeni city of Hodeidah. In September 2015, coalition airstrikes targeted a wedding hall in Yemen, killing 131 civilians, including women and children. The spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the incident then as “the bloodiest since the conflict began,” but the coalition strongly denied any role in the attack.  Instead, it accused “local armed groups” of carrying out the attack. These are just a few examples of daily reporting on the conflict by the media rather than the parties to the conflict.

The Al-Houthi group has accused the coalition air forces of deliberately carrying out the airstrike on Al Thawra hospital and the associated violation of international law.  However, the coalition spokesman denied and renounced this allegation. Each party mobilized its resources to prove its opponent’s involvement in this war crime. At the same time, the conflicting parties brazenly ignore human rights organizations and independent activists’ calls for an independent commission to investigate the crimes.

The media appear to be following the ten rules of war propaganda, which were listed by Arthur Ponsonby in his book written almost a century ago entitled, Falsehood in Wartime: Propaganda Lies of the First World War. While they may not have read the book, these rules are nevertheless evident in the speeches of the leaders and propaganda machines of the parties to the conflict.  They repeat fallacies in a desperate attempt to convince the public of the legitimacy of the war — whether it is the Saudi-Emirati alliance through the justification for its intervention in Yemen “at the request of the legitimate government,” or the Houthis who claim they are defending “Yemen sovereignty,” according to Reuters. The 10th rule of Ponsonby’s commandments of propaganda — “all who doubt our propaganda, are traitors” — is clearly in play when accusing opponents, critics — or even peace advocates — of treason.

The warring parties in Yemen have fought an open media war that has both fueled and justified the need for military operations. The propaganda war has also contributed significantly to preparing Yemenis for the fighting. The Houthi leadership has given special attention to propaganda through establishing its own media, acquiring state media, prosecuting and abducting journalists, forced disappearances of journalists, occupying and closing newspaper bureaus, channels and websites of opposition parties, and finally, taking full control over and putting the reins on freedom of expression in geographical areas under its authority, as well as using them to serve their projects and objectives in the war. Likewise, the Saudi-led coalition uses all of its considerable media capabilities to serve the coalition’s objectives for the war. War propaganda has reached its peak and the crisis is only getting worse.

The Warring Parties’ Media Outlets Spin the Truth and Point the Finger at the Opposing Side

Fueled by fanaticism and extremism, the series of killings and genocide against innocent Yemeni civilians continues. How has the bias in the media contributed to developments in this war? The coalition’s military intervention in Yemen began with two goals: first, the elimination of the Houthi “rebellion,” and second, the restoration of President Hadi which the coalition has promoted since the first day of operations. The coalition used Iran’s statements in support of the Houthis as a pretext to intervene and condemn Iranian interference in the region. The coalition media seized upon the alleged link between the Houthis and Iran and repeated it so frequently that many of the world’s media started to perpetuate the same idea that the Houthis are supported by Iran. In particular, CNN sometimes adopts the propaganda of the coalition, especially in the reports produced from Riyadh and sometimes from Yemen, linking Iran as a supporter of the Houthis. In January, CNN reported on “the provision of Iranian aircraft to the Houthis.”  Oddly, these reports did not question how these supposed Iranian aircraft and missiles reached the Houthis given that the coalition had already imposed an air and sea blockade on Yemen at the beginning of the war.

Both sides of the conflict highlight the fact that thousands of innocent people are dying every day, whether through being killed in combat, disease, torture in prisons, or indiscriminate airstrikes. They also talk about the hundreds of thousands of children suffering from chronic malnutrition and acute food shortages. But the way in which they characterize the conflict is different — each to suit its own objectives.

The Saudi and UAE propaganda claims that the coalition’s military intervention is intended to protect the Yemeni people from the Houthi factions and to limit Iran’s expansion to the region. Likewise, Houthi propaganda claims that the Houthis are defending Yemenis from aggression and protecting their dignity. In fact, according to statistics and human rights reports, the coalition intervention contributed to the collapse of the Yemeni economy. The United Nations accuses the coalition of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Yemen.  It also accuses the Houthi authorities of harassing the citizens in the areas they control and also indiscriminate bombing of residential areas.

The conflicting parties thus each rely on the media as a mechanism for manipulation of facts and justification for their actions. Even though each is perpetrating war crimes, each holds the other responsible for the crime relying on falsehood and propaganda.

It is not necessary to visit Yemen to learn about political propaganda. It is enough to read the testimony and reports by human rights organizations and international organizations that reveal the atrocities perpetrated in this war by both sides.

Humanitarian Aid and Relief at the Mercy of Political Interests

The coalition-sponsored media outlets as well as the anti-Houthi media have consistently accused the Houthis of imposing a humanitarian blockade on Yemen, preventing aid from reaching the areas they control and exploiting food and aid shipments to smuggle weapons. Such propaganda is easily refuted as the testimony of UN officials and human rights workers has demonstrated. They consider the military-led blockade of northern Yemen a colossal  humanitarian crisis. The blockade is responsible for the destruction of the economy and the population’s lack of basic essentials such as medicine and food.

Yet the political propaganda also dominates the humanitarian and relief operations. The relief efforts of the conflicting parties follow their political agendas. It is not surprising that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates topped the list of donors at a donor conference in Geneva in April. They wish to improve their image in the world arena. But their donation of funds directly contradicts their economic policy for Yemen, to cripple the economy, and force the Houthis to capitulate.

Saudi Arabia wishes to be seen in the world as a “savior” by highlighting its humanitarian efforts in the region. It has established the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center. Recently, the General Supervisor of the center said that Saudi Arabia had donated a total of $10 billion  as of March, 2018, while the UAE had donated more than $3 billion. However, given the complete lack of transparency and accountability in distribution of the aid, the most important question is to what extent Yemeni people have benefitted from such aid?

Saudi Arabia claims that the amount of aid it has provided to Yemen during the war is equivalent to 70% of the total international aid. Yet the total losses to Yemen so far as a result of the war are staggering. Since the beginning of the military intervention:

– Yemen’s GDP has declined by more than 50%, according to the World Bank estimates.

– Yemen’s GDP decreased by $50 billion by the end of 2018, according to a report issued by the Ministry of Planning in President Hadi’s government.

– At the beginning of the intervention, Yemeni currency was valued at 215 riyals to the U.S. dollar; now the value of the currency has collapsed twofold to 535 riyals to the dollar.

Saudi Arabia’s hindrance of the Hadi government in fulfilling its promise to support the Yemeni currency is also evident. The UAE also worked to disrupt and neutralize Yemeni ports in favor of ports in Dubai (i.e., Jebel Ali, Al Hamriya, and Port Rashid).

Donor conferences to raise humanitarian relief funds for Yemen demonstrate the parties’ political intentions rather than their humanitarian concerns. The UAE’s exploitation of humanitarian relief for political purposes, especially in southern Yemen, is no secret. The UAE relied on relief as a means to buy southern loyalties and use them in its war against the Houthis and also against the government it is claiming to restore. The UAE has also utilized the southern separatist factions (demanding the separation of southern Yemen from its northern region) to serve its projects in Yemen. Under UAE guidance, they attacked forces loyal to President Hadi in Aden earlier this year.

The happy Yemen, as it has been historically known, has become a sad decimated shell of a country after more than three years of war. Innocent Yemeni civilians are no longer safe in their homes. A country of 29 million according to the latest population census faces the worst famine in its history. According to UN reports, 22 million Yemenis need humanitarian aid.

The coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE holds the Houthis responsible for all the suffering of the Yemeni people. The coalition propaganda machine justifies every action and every atrocity — even the killing and starvation of innocent children and women every day — because the Houthis are in power.

Yet targeting civilians and using them as a means to overthrow an armed group or a political leader is neither justified under international law nor by Resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations nor by the United Nations Charter on Genocide. As confirmed by the daily reports of the United Nations and all human rights organizations, the siege and the daily bombing do not merely affect the Houthi militia forces alone, but the entire population of Yemen, including non-combatants.

The United States cannot be held blameless for the current crisis. The geostrategic policies of Western countries typically have been based on access to Gulf oil. They have little or nothing to do with the support of human rights, the restoration of legitimacy, the condemnation of crimes against civilians, or the condemnation of military aggression. This war is no different. What is happening now in Yemen is that outside intervening powers are exchanging propaganda and pursuing military policies based on their own individual state interests. Through its political and military support for the coalition, the U.S. is furthering Saudi and Emirati interests in the region. Therefore, the U.S. bears significant responsibility for the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen.