The people of Yemen, according to the prophet Muhammad, have “the most tender minds and the softest hearts.” This week, those qualities showed up in the midst of a raging war that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The two sides in Yemen exchanged humanitarian gestures just before planned talks in Sweden.
The country’s Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran, released 14 prisoners to the Yemeni government while 50 wounded Houthi fighters were flown to Oman for treatment, a move approved by the government’s main backer, Saudi Arabia.
The actions were more than confidence-building steps to bridge a chasm of distrust created by a brutal civil war that began in 2015. They also represent a recognition by each side of the core principles of international humanitarian law, commonly known as the Geneva Conventions.
Those principles, simply put, are that the violence of war must have its limits and that innocent life must be protected. Even the slightest admission that such principles have a role to play in a war seen as a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a welcome step.
Further gestures of peace are now possible in Yemen, such as more prisoner releases as well as a truce in the port city of Hodeidah. The port is the main access for aid to flow to the three-quarters of Yemen’s population, or 22 million people, who urgently need assistance.
The warring factions in Yemen are already cooperating with foreign relief agencies to prevent attacks on aid stations and hospitals, a process known as humanitarian deconfliction. In August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report making a case that all parties to the conflict are likely to have committed war crimes. This implied a threat of post-conflict prosecution of those who harm civilians. In addition to such threats, Saudi Arabia is under pressure to end its role in the war after the October killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.
The principles of humanitarian law, which affirm the innocence of noncombatants, have not only gained wide acceptance among most nations – they are also useful levers in seeking a pause in war fighting and opening possibilities for talks.
Any negotiations to end Yemen’s war still have a long way to go. Talks in 2016 collapsed in part because trust-building steps were not in place. Now, with these latest humanitarian gestures, talks might go ahead.
In a plea to all Yemenis this week, the leader of neighboring Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, mentioned the qualities of the Yemeni people, such as wisdom and faith, cited centuries ago by the Islamic prophet. “Why don’t you use reason when you are the ones who were described as wise?” Mr. Abiy said. “Why do you teach the language of war and fighting rather than the language of dialogue when you are the owners of eloquence?”
Ending wars often requires an appeal to conscience as much as pressure from outside. With Yemen’s war at a stalemate, the time may be ripe for such appeals.