Yemen – A Crime Against Us All Commentary
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Yemen – A Crime Against Us All
Edited by: Ben Cohen

In a bombing, the dust settles slowly over the strike zone. What emerges are grey images, living beings neutralized to monochrome. Bleeding from the ears, deaf, and dumb from the concussions the survivors walk about in a haze. These zombies are the first things you see staggering down the street away from the rubble behind them, rubble that is the tomb of loved ones, neighbors, and friends.

There is no militarily necessary reason for the destruction, the strike carried out by one of the combatants who knew or should have known about the laws of armed conflict. The rules do not matter in most conflicts of the 21st century. Welcome to the dirty little wars that nip at the heels of civilization, a civilization grown weary of it all and who look the other way. It is just too hard to marshal enough political will to do something.

A powerless United Nations can do nothing other than to help ease the pain of air strikes by caring for the wounded and the terrified refugees. The once proud mandate of restoring international peace and security has changed to maintaining at best that peace and security.

The three nations that could restore that prominence, the United States, China, and Russia are its biggest challenges and all three could certainly live without the paradigm of peace set forth in 1945. All three of those nations over the past years are also the biggest human rights abusers led by strong men.

International Law has evolved over centuries through customary practice and the consent of nations to bind themselves to certain norms. Indeed the day-to-day actions in commerce, trade, and finance all hinge upon these norms. Over time, other norms that declare that human beings have rights to be free from want, fear, and to speak their minds and worship freely are now enforceable and carry an accounting if violated.

From all this just twenty-five years ago, modern international criminal law began. For a decade or so, the rule of law prevailed regarding holding those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable. Yet we have slipped down a slippery slope. That political will is waning and the use of the law to govern international relations regarding humanity challenged.

In this kaleidoscopic void, dirty little wars flourish like weeds in an abandoned lot. Yemen is one of those weeds thriving in the dusty haze of airstrikes.

The likes of the Yemeni conflict exists but for this condition and circumstance. A surrogate conflict backed by cynical nations vying for power and influence in the greater region that is the Middle East, the possibility of a peaceful resolution hinges on the rule of law. It is not going to happen.

The struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran has created many geopolitical fault lines and Yemen is a fissure where the hot gases of hatred and distrust blow. The players that lurk behind in the shadows and the dust are too interested in the outcome going their way. It is a much bigger issue than a civil war in Yemen. It is a struggle for dominance. All sides are committing international crimes to achieve that dominance.

From secret detention centers and excessive bombing perpetrated by Saudi led or backed forces, the pattern of lawlessness continues unabated. Overlay blockades and the resulting famine, Yemen is a cesspool of atrocity.

Aiding and abetting this struggle for geopolitical dominance are various Western countries that are making a killing (pardon the pun) supplying arms to the parties to the conflict that defines Yemen today. They sell these arms with the full knowledge that the arms are used against combatants and noncombatants as well, a violation of international law. That is aiding and abetting international crimes, which makes those nations individually criminally liable for those war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Someday, but not now, there will be an accounting for the crimes perpetrated against the people of Yemen. When that time comes all parties, to include nations who sustain the conflict by selling arms to the combatants will have to account for their actions that have destroyed Yemen. Those crimes are crimes against us all.

David M. Crane is a Professor of Practice at Syracuse University College of Law. From 2002 to 2005, Crane was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international war crimes tribunal. Professor Crane was also the founder of the Syrian Accountability Project and the co-author of the Caesar Report on Syria Atrocities.


Suggested citation: David M. Crane, Yemen – A Crime Against Us All, JURIST – Academic Commentary, Jul. 10, 2018,

This article was prepared for publication by Ben Cohen, a JURIST Section Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at

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