Re-Inventing Intervention: A Case for Implementing the Responsibility To Protect Doctrine in Yemen – Part 2: Challenges and Opportunities for R2P – Alana Bonenfant

This piece is part of a two-part series regarding the application of the R2P doctrine in Yemen. The first part explored the concept of R2P and this second part concerns the specific application of this doctrine to Yemen.


A criticism of the R2P doctrine is that it is interventionism masked as humanitarian aid, which has, in the past, failed to achieve its objectives, particularly following the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (‘NATO’) intervention in Kosovo, which proceeded without UN authorisation [at p.287]. The main critique of the intervention in Kosovo is founded primarily on the targeting of dual military – civilian use facilities, in direct contravention of customary international humanitarian law [at p.271]. Aside from the nature of the intervention and the means of force used in Kosovo, the international community recognised a need for an ‘exception to the rule’, that is, intervention in times of emergency, which would traditionally be considered a violation of State sovereignty.

The 2011 military intervention in Libya is considered a failure of the R2P doctrine in its current form; the failures of Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo predate the current framework. The intervention lead to further destabilisation and affected the intensity of the conflict long-term. The mandated intention of the allied intervention by NATO was to achieve ‘immediate ceasefire, including an end to all current attacks against civilians by the Gaddafi regime and its supporters’. Despite initial successes, the campaign ultimately failed when the allied nations involved disagreed on which nations would control certain aspects of the campaign, like the no-fly zone. Ultimately, conflict in Libya substantially ended following the death of Muammar Gaddafi n October 2011, and the UNSC subsequently withdrew operations.

A hurdle which inevitably sits in the way of the doctrine’s establishment as a pillar of international law, is its recognition as legitimate practice. Of the 831 UNSC resolutions which have passed since the doctrine was accepted at the World Summit in 2005, only 102 make mention of the doctrine as a whole. Further, despite the fact that Yemen has been in a non-international armed conflict (‘NIAC’) since 2011, only 33 of those resolutions mention the civil war,  and only 1 resolution passed by the UNSC explicitly mentions the R2P doctrine in the context of the Yemeni civil war. While the lack of cognisant recognition of the human rights abuses in Yemen by the UNSC is problematic, it is the lack of acknowledgement which give rise to the opportunity to implement the doctrine and change the narrative surrounding R2P in instances of long-term civil conflict.


An opportunity therefore presents itself for the R2P doctrine in Yemen. There are a number of requirements which need to be put in place by a campaign of intervention, including: (1) basic survival needs, as the deprivation of food aid has acted as a major contributor to the current famine and has put millions of people at risk of starvation, illness and, ultimately, death; (2) civilian protection, because at the end of 2019, 6872 civilians have been killed as a result of the civil conflict, nearly 11,000 had been wounded and further 3.3 million civilians have been displaced contributing to the ongoing global refugee crisis; and (3) basic services, as the economy has been on the verge of collapse since 2016 and has contracted roughly 50 percent since 2015 and the start of the civil war. Illiteracy rates have skyrocketed, which will create a continued pattern of poverty and civilian harm for decades to come. In order to suggest the implementation of the R2P doctrine in Yemen, the conflict must first satisfy the six criteria set out by the ICISS.

‘Just Cause’

Yemen has been in a non-international armed conflict since 2011. The intensity requirement of a NIAC has been satisfied because the armed violence went beyond simple internal disturbances before devolving into consistent infighting, and, one of the parties to the conflict was a non-State actor requisite organisation which established its position as a legitimate party to the conflict [see Common Article 3]. The non-State actor in the Yemeni Civil War is the Houthi Rebel group. The conflict first emerged between Houthi rebels and the government when they began protesting then-President Saleh’s support of Al-Qaeda. The Houthis eventually overthrew the government in 2015, which marks the official start of the Yemeni Civil War, despite the threshold criteria for a NIAC being satisfied years earlier. Therefore, the requirement of ‘just cause’ is satisfied as there is a legitimate and long-standing conflict occurring in the region which has a direct and fatal effect on the civilian population.

Right Authority

Before the government was overthrown, a military intervention was launched by Saudi Arabia at the request of the late President Hadi. This intervention was politically motivated and resulted widespread civilian casualties. As the government in Yemen has subsequently collapsed, the appropriate authority to authorise intervention in these circumstances is the UNSC. 

Right Intention

The intention of the UNSC in the context of the Yemen crisis is undeclared at the time of writing, considering there has been no confirmed or authorised humanitarian intervention in Yemen. However, the contents of the Stockholm Agreementset out by negotiations which concluded with the provision of aid through the major ports in Hodeiah, the demilitarization of Taiz, and the freeing of hostages and prisoners. The intention of that agreement clearly sets out a desire to help civilians. 

Last Resort

Following the collapse of the government, sanctions were placed on land, sea and air trading with Yemen, which has been a major contributing factor in the severity of the famine. As the rebels have rendered what little aid does make it into the country inaccessible, and the implementation of the agreed upon resolution in the Stockholm Agreement has not seen a clear line of action since it was signed over 12 months ago, humanitarian intervention is now a required action to prevent future human loss.  

Proportional Means 

Since 2015, the list of alleged human rights violations under which the Houthis have perpetuated include, but are not limited to: the use of child soldiers; shelling civilian areas, forced evacuation and displacement and executions; use of landmines in heavily populated civilian areas and the diversion of humanitarian aid [at 188-191]. This non-exhaustive list provides the UNSC with grounds to determine the proportion of intervention under these circumstances. 

Reasonable Prospects 

The reasonable prospect for success is perhaps the hardest criterion to satisfy in making the case for implementing R2P in Yemen. It is likely that international organisations as well as nations involved in supplying aid will be hesitant to provide unbridled provisions following the failure of Libya. However, given the success of negotiations like those in Stockholm, there is an opportunity to capitalise on the willingness to take steps toward de – escalating the conflict. 


The crisis in Yemen provides a unique opportunity for the international community to intervene and prevent further civilian casualties. There are international agreements and negotiations already in place which provide the UNSC with the general framework to pursue humanitarian intervention, specifically in the context of the Yemeni civil war, for the purposes of providing aid to vulnerable civilians. The past failures for humanitarian intervention have originated from the involvement of organisations with strong political influence which ultimately led to their demise. To be successful, a campaign for humanitarian intervention in Yemen must be apolitical in its inherent and foundational motivations. While the concept of intervention is one that the modern political system treats as perverse, in circumstances such as those in Yemen, the morality of intended outcome and the likelihood of further human loss in the face of inaction should act as a catalyst for real, operative change. 

Alana Bonenfant is an LLM (Research) student at Bond University. Originally from Calgary, Canada, Ms Bonenfant holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts (International Relations) from Bond University. 

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