THE BLOG

Removing Military Bases From Yemen's Cities

23/04/2014 11:24 BST | Updated 22/06/2014 10:59 BST

On Tuesday 6 August, Reuters reported a military helicopter shot down by rebels thought also to have attacked Yemen's primary oil pipeline. Nine military personnel were killed.

The attack is part of a pattern with two key aspects. One is the rampant insurgency pervading a perennially unstable state. The other is the location of military infrastructure amongst Yemen's civilian population. The recent unprecedented move of the UK and US governments to close all diplomatic outlets in Yemen in response to specific threats, must be seen in this context.

On 13 May 2013, a military jet crashed into a busy residential street in the capital city, Sana'a. The pilot died and an undisclosed number of civilians were injured. On 19 February 2013, another jet crashed in an equally crowded yet even more central district of the city, this time with 12 civilian fatalities, 21 injured and dozens of homes destroyed. In November 2012, a military transport plane came down in the northern Al-Hasaba district, killing all ten personnel on board, with figures unreleased for civilian casualties.

Estimates by the Yemeni Centre for Transitional Justice (YCTJ) put the number of such crashes at 28 over the last decade. Yet aerial crashes are just part of a story whereby Yemen's cities are being turned into battlefields for the country's many armed factions to prosecute their campaigns against each other and the government.

One of the most infamous incidents occurred during the North-South civil war of 1994, when the munitions depot at Jabal Hadid in formerly British-controlled Aden was sabotaged, killing scores of civilians. In March 2011, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) precipitated another huge explosion at a munitions dump in the densely populated area of Jaar in the town of Abyan, killing at least 200 civilians.

Yemen has a lengthy history of insurgency and civil strife. Often this has taken the form of Southern grievances against the more powerful North: a remnant of the two state situation that prevailed between the British pull-out in 1968 and reunification in 1990. To add to the broth, Yemen also has its influential and often bullying neighbour, Saudi Arabia, to contend with. This is both in the sense of machinations from the House of Saud and from the Kingdom's active Islamist factions, most notably AQAP.

Indeed, AQAP has spent many years high up Western security service lists as one of the most dangerous protagonists in the absurdly named, but in many senses real, 'Global War on Terror'. Since electing to stay on the safe side of the Bush Administration's with or against us mantra, the Yemeni government has engaged in an open war with AQAP and Houthi insurgents in the Northern governorates of the country.

The most recent iteration of anti-government sentiment is the Yemeni Peaceful Youth protesters' campaign against the residual regime of deposed President Ali Abdulla Saleh, forced to stand down in February 2012. Though peaceful, this agitation continues the pattern of people-state conflict, which is a destabilising background to the National Dialogue Council (NDC) and constitution writing processes now in train.

Increased conflict and the problem of bases in cities means a concomitant increase in risk to civilians. The issue of removing bases from cities was at the heart of peace negotiations between the North and South before the outbreak of war in 1994. So it should now be part of the NDC.

Not only do ordinary Yemeni civilians suffer from the doleful effects of living in a state struggling to foster the institutions of stability and prosperity, but their suffering is compounded by their misfortune of living directly in the crossfire of the conflicts described, with so many of the military installations mutually targeted being located in their towns and cities.

There are 71 military facilities in Sana'a alone: a unique situation not found anywhere else in the world. Most of these bases and depots contain heavy military equipment, including aircraft, tanks, rockets and various explosive ordnance. It is a legacy of repression that has no place in a modern democracy of the kind Yemen's government claims it wishes to build.

In response, the YCTJ has teamed up with Avaaz, the pro-democracy online petitioning forum, to entreat the Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and his transitional government to relocate all military installations to safe distances outside Yemen's cities. The YCTJ is seeking international support for the project (http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Remove_All_Military_Bases_from_the_Major_Cities_of_Yemen/?fWHdoeb&pv=1).

The petition touches on Yemen's need and desire to modernize. As it stresses, Yemen is in a transitional phase where the priorities for its people are security and stability to ensure a genuine democratic transition. Democracies, the petition points out, do not base their militaries in their cities.

Indeed, the protection of civilians and obligation to locate military installations away from densely populated areas are codified into international law in Article 13(1) of Additional Protocol II and Article 58 of Additional Protocol I, respectively, to the Geneva Conventions. There is also Convention IV on the Protection of Civilian Persons in the Time of War, which prohibits the use of civilians as human shields: the logical allegation when governments insist on urban locations. The last point is even recognised in Yemen's 1998 Military Criminal Code.

In this way, the Yemeni leadership, which represents Yemen as a state party to the relevant conventions, risks criminal liability if it continues to arrange its military infrastructure as it does.

In Europe, as in Yemen, military formations were once located on the basis of safeguarding their ruling regimes. However, after the revolution in military affairs of the 17th Century, which saw an exponential increase in the size of European armies, there emerged a need to relocate them away from metropolitan areas. This was done chiefly to cultivate professionalism and esprit de corps. However, there was also the need to reduce the incidence of public grievances.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the Prussian military theoretician, Carl Von Clausewitz, elaborated on this division of political and armed forces by presenting his 'Wonderful Trinity' of the people, government and military. The independence of these three groups was necessary to ensure mutual restraint and thus the stable functioning of a modern society.

In The Soldier and the State, Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington, updated the state-military concept by describing the difference between objective and subjective civilian control. Objective civilian control - the ideal - can only be achieved by ensuring the professionalism of the military. In general, that means keeping the military away from the people and political centres.

In all probability, instituting more inclusive government will ensure stability by providing democratic conduits for the concerns of Yemen's factions. However, for those in the government that cling to hard security before institutions, they can rest assured that in heeding the YCTJ petition and symbolically phasing the relocation of bases, they will be following a tried and tested path to modernity.

Moreover, the government will be hard pushed to find people across Yemen's divides who would not welcome reduction of the appalling accident rate and conversion of the existing urban installations into more peaceable amenities, such as schools, hospitals and parks.