For the past five months, Yemenis have held hope that some sort of truce, if not a peace deal, will end the civil war that has blighted their country. At the end of February, any optimism was temporarily put aside by a renewed onslaught from Houthi rebel forces, who have now taken the province of Al Jawf, including its capital, Al Hazm. Three million people – 2 million of whom have already had to flee to the country’s north – are now left vulnerable to further displacement and violence. Many of Yemen’s internally displaced have now found themselves stranded in the desert, carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs, in fear of the carnage to come.
The Iran-backed Houthis, moreover, are obstructing humanitarian operations in the north and withholding international aid, possibly with the intention, as some reports indicate, to sell it on the black market. These practices are cynical, exploitative and deeply inhumane. They also have wider implications for the receipt of future aid: the UN has announced that it will now scale back its assistance to rebel-held areas.
Last month, the Yemeni Speaker of Parliament, Sultan Al Barakani, complained to the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, that the rebels had seized assets from pro-government parliamentarians.
On Tuesday, the Houthi-controlled Specialised Criminal Court in Sanaa sentenced 35 pro-government members of Parliament to death and confiscated their property, according to a Yemeni lawyer at the hearing. The convicted MPs allegedly include Mr Al Barakani and his deputy, Abdul Aziz Jubari. Dozens of other pro-government MPs, many of whom switched allegiances after rebels killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2017, still live in Houthi-controlled areas. Their lives are now at considerable risk.
Attacks on popular representatives are unacceptable. They also mark an escalation of the conflict, which the Houthi have shown no attempt at easing.
Despite the Houthi insurgency claiming responsibility for attacks on a Saudi oilfield in September, which many believe were in fact launched from Iran, the Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen sought to defuse tensions by undertaking direct negotiations with rebel leaders and carving a path towards a political settlement. The UAE, one of the coalition partners, has drawn down its own military presence in Yemen after working to train Yemeni security forces.
The Houthis have met good faith and de-escalation with recalcitrance and opportunism. Rather than engage in constructive dialogue for peace, they have spun efforts at a détente into an opportunity to further entrench themselves and re-arm. The insurgency is now attempting to advance toward oilfields in Al Shabwa and Marib provinces. Humanitarian catastrophe and mass displacement loom in Al Jawf.
A stable future for Yemen relies on a negotiated political settlement and, ultimately, peace. The Houthi leadership is placing itself in an increasingly untenable position by rejecting these realities, and forcing the movement of the conversation towards the need for accountability for the group’s egregious violations. They have already earned their homeland the sad moniker of the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. They cannot be allowed to plunge Yemen into deeper despair