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23/10/2017 09:26 BST | Updated 23/10/2017 09:26 BST

In Post-Conflict Yemen, The Pen Must Be Mightier Than The Sword

Only strict adherence to the rule of law can guarantee a lasting peace.

Yemen is on its knees. As the world's "forgotten war" rages into its third year, there are no signs of a clear breakthrough for either side. Already ravaged by water scarcity, famine and cholera, the impoverished nation teeters on the brink of collapse. On the ground, atrocities are committed by all sides, whilst few meaningful steps are being taken to hold anyone accountable for the crimes against the people of Yemen. 

The complexity of the heavily politicised conflict, involving multiple foreign actors and interests, means that an end to the suffering seems distant. In a recent address at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, ousted Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi told the world that a military solution seems more likely than a political one. Whatever the final means, the Yemeni civil war will have to come to an end eventually.

Western governments are broadly supportive of Hadi's claim, while similar allegiances exist between the opposing Houthis and the Iranian Government. Regional and international interests have led to a status quo where thousands die each year directly from the conflict, and a worsening humanitarian crisis that is simply not being addressed.

Then, the daunting task of rebuilding the country begins, with the aim to cement a lasting peace. This period will be decisive for the future of the nation, and crucial questions must be asked. How can we break the cycle of violence? How can we ensure that future generations of Yemenis are not subject to the scourge of war? How can things simply go back to the way they were?

Many modern wars in the Middle East can be characterised by widespread violations of international law by all parties, and the conflict in Yemen is no different.  Attacks against civilians, the recruitment of child soldiers, and arbitrary detention are just a few of the various violations taking place on daily basis throughout the country. Even more worrying is the prevalent impunity for those committing these crimes. Yemenis are left with no real security and are subject to the whim of whoever happens to seize power, as harsh means are regularly used to punish journalists and activists who speak out against abuses, with international law rarely being upheld.

Lessons can and must be learned from another country thrown into turmoil after the Arab Spring: Libya. After the revolutionary forces overthrew Colonel Gaddafi, they failed to reign in the authoritative militia and hold people accountable for crimes committed throughout the revolution. Emboldened by their impunity, the armed militia failed to disperse, operating above the law. Whilst the international community lost interest, armed actors disrupted the fledgling democratic process, and the country lapsed into a second civil war.

So how can Yemen avoid the pitfalls of the Libya post-conflict process? A large part of the answer lies in the rule of law. The idea that no man or women is above the law must permeate throughout Yemeni society, providing justice for all citizens. War criminals cannot be allowed to walk free and continue to undermine Yemeni society; they must face justice before the courts in Yemen or abroad. The international independent investigation established by the UN Human Rights Council is a first step to this process, but it remains to be seen how effective this mechanism will be in practice and the extent to which this investigation will be supported by the important Gulf nations. The Gulf nations arguably hold the future of Yemen in their hands, they are ones that will decide when and how this conflict ends. Nonetheless, concrete decisions need to be taken to ensure this justice irrespective of their participation. Although, the inclusion of the Gulf nations is likely to be paramount in practice to the success of this process.

Secondly, the post-conflict government itself should prioritise the creation of a functioning system of governance which aligns itself with human rights law. Fairness breeds trust in formal institutions, which is lacking in Yemen.  Whichever party 'wins' the war will hope to unify the Yemeni people, and governance in accordance with international law can help bring the people together after years of violence. If nefarious armed actors are held accountable, any government in post-conflict Yemen will have a greater chance of ruling effectively and fairly. Moreover, Yemen's post-conflict government will have its own self-serving interests in ensuring compliance with international legal standards if not for the purposes of promoting foreign investment and aid to the country.

Lessons should be learned from Libya, which rushed into a transitional process without correctly establishing a reliable foundation for the country to rebuild on. A peaceful and prosperous society must be rooted in fairness. Justice cannot exist while staring down the barrel of a gun. Yemen under the leadership of Hadi has already shown a willingness to incorporate the rule of law in its previous effort at a transitional process prior the outbreak of the conflict. The much hailed National Dialogue Conference sought to incorporate Yemen's complex political, tribal and religious actors within the drafting of the new constitution as a means of reconciling the country's intractable dividing lines.

Achieving fairness in Yemeni society will no doubt prove difficult. Those committing the violations of international law are powerful actors, protected by their influential positions and dedicated supporters. Providing total justice for the countless crimes committed in Yemen during the civil war is likely impossible, yet the principle still stands. Law binds a society together, safeguarding citizens from those who would see themselves above the authority of the state. For a country whose citizens have become all too accustomed to violence, the epilogue to the Yemeni civil war should be a long-lasting peace, rooted in the rule of law.