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Why the Yemen war may be different

In a step toward moral law in Middle Eastern conflicts, the US persuades Saudi Arabia to propose a ‘humanitarian pause’ in Yemen’s war to allow aid to reach civilians. This may set a pattern for the region’s wars.

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    A soldier stands guard as Yemeni health workers demand the lifting of a blockade on Yemen in front of the U.N. building in Sanaa, Yemen, May 7.
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Wars in the Middle East are often ones of total violence, in large part because they are driven by tribal, ethnic, or religious passions with a winner-take-all approach. Yet in recent years, something else has been added to possibly change this pattern. Outside countries have demanded respect for the moral law of humanitarian protection of civilians.

This demand has not yet greatly altered the conflicts in Syria and Libya or the war waged by Islamic State. But for the war in Yemen, where at least 1,400 people have been killed, the world is demanding a “humanitarian pause.” This would allow life-saving assistance to reach tens of thousands of displaced people.

Diplomats such as Secretary of State John Kerry have had a hard time persuading the combatants in Middle Eastern wars to accept a universal principle like compassion for the innocent. Yet the United States was able to convince Saudi Arabia to propose a temporary cease-fire Thursday and halting of its bombing campaign in Yemen – but only on the condition that its main adversary, the Houthi rebels, lay down their arms.

The Saudis even promised $274 million in civilian aid while the US promised $68 million. This is critical as Yemen is almost totally dependent on imports for its basic foods.

This small diplomatic triumph comes on the 10th anniversary of world leaders endorsing an important new idea in humanitarian law, namely that a country could be invaded if its government fails to protect its own citizens from mass killing. The concept, known as “responsibility to protect,” was cited by the United Nations in 2011 to permit NATO to attack Libya. But it has since fallen out of favor after NATO went beyond protection of vulnerable civilians to achieve a regime change in Libya.

Yemen’s government is in disarray as President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was forced by Houthi rebels to flee to Saudi Arabia. But Saudi fighter jets, with logistical support from the US, are bombing the Iran-backed rebels on his behalf. And as the killing has increased, Mr. Hadi has asked the UN Security Council to approve the use of foreign ground forces to impose peace. Most likely this would entail troops from a number of Arab countries, not just Saudi Arabia.

The Yemen war may seem distant and complex yet this latest progress in bringing moral law to bear on it should be supported. It builds on progress in suppressing the use of chemical weapons in Syria. These are laudable steps toward ending the region’s history of total war with no regard for innocent life.

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