• Marina Tovar Velasco

The Yemeni War: is the EU complying with the values embodied in the European Union Global Strategy?

This article aims to present the main features of what is known to be the worst humanitarian crisis which have derived from the Yemeni War that started in 2015. Although this war could not directly affect the European Union and its interests in the immediate term, the Union – as a global actor – has throughout its history engaged in spreading its values. In 2016, the Union presented the European Union Global Strategy (EUGS), aiming to establish a set of objectives to be carried out through a set of values and compromises. Thus, in this paper, we will examine how the Union puts into practice the Strategy presented by Federica Mogherini in the situation of Yemen.

Introduction – what is happening in Yemen?

Yemen is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises that started in early 2011, after the events of the Arab spring. The events started with pro-democracy protests against the former authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh, inducing a change on the executive power, and subsequently introducing power struggles and internal instability as features of the Yemeni agenda for the following two years. In 2014, “Houthi insurgents-Shiite rebels with links to Iran” (Global Conflict Tracker, 2021) seized control of Sana’a, one of the largest cities of the country “demanding lower fuel prices and a new government” (Global Conflict Tracker, 2021). The government, upon receiving a threat, began negotiations with the insurgents that, after a year, was not satisfactory and failed in 2015.

The then-president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, was forced to resign in January 2015 as a result of the insurgents seizing the presidential palace. Nearly ten years after the beginning of the pro-democratic protests, the failed negotiations, and the coup d’état in 2015, have evolved and consolidated as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the United Arab Emirates (UAE) plays a relevant role. Yemen has become the battlefield for third states to pursue their interests. On the one hand, Iran “is feeding the chaos in Yemen (Krause & Parker, 2020) supporting the Houthi insurgents with small arms, ballistic missiles and, aerial and water-drones according to the United Nations (UN) in order to maintain its hegemony. On the other hand, the “Saudi-led coalition’s anti-Houthi” (Krause & Parker, 2020) with the aim of restoring the “pre-war status quo of Hadi presidency” (Krause & Parker, 2020). In regard to the humanitarian crisis that the Yemeni War has attached to, it “has been classified by the UN as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’”(Almosawa, Hubbard & Griggs, 2017). The crisis features chilling figures of thirty-one million estimated people in need of assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 100,00 people killed since 2015 according to ACLED and four million displaced people according to the UNHCR.

The role of the European Union – the Global Strategy 2016

As far as the Union is concerned, first, we must be aware that when it comes to its foreign policy, it is not always presented as a single unit and a single voice. In the presence of a phenomenon of international relevance, it is possible to observe the individual foreign policy of the Member States of the Union on the one hand and, the foreign policy of the Union on the other - with one voice. Thus, the analysis unit of study of this paper will be the position and views of the Union in reference to the question of Yemen and not the individual interests of the Member States.

The European Union issued in June 2016 the “Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy” (EEAS, 2016: 1) under the title of “Shared Vision, Common Action: A stronger Europe” (EEAS, 2016: 1), the document that will be our object of study. Through the analysis of this document, which is the last that the EEAS has published in reference to the Common Foreign and Security Policy, we intend to analyse the values that the Union presents in its foreign policy and its actions, as regards the case of Yemen. We are going to focus and make an in-depth analysis of some of the relevant features of the European Global Strategy (EUGS) related to the values of the Union. The features are the following: 1) a rules-based global order, 2) engagement, 3) responsibility and 4) partnerships.

1. A rules-based global order

Among the top five priorities of the Union regarding its external action, the fifth one is the “rules-based global order” (EEAS, 2016: 7). The main core rule of the Union is multilateralism and its engagement with international organizations – especially the United Nations – to promote the prior. Not only that, but also international law and the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are core rules that play an important role in the Union’s foreign policy. How are these values embodied in foreign policy?

The European Union

“firmly supports the UN-led peace process and contributes to local and grass-root level peacebuilding and reconciliation initiatives” (EEAS, 2016: 14).

As the Commission states, the Union’s response to the Yemeni War is based “on a humanitarian and development aid continuum” (European Commission A, 2021). In March 2021, the Commission has allocated 95 million € together with the UN, Sweden and Switzerland in “humanitarian support” (European Commission B, 2021). It is worth noting that since the beginning of the conflict, in 2015, the Union “has allocated 981 million € in various forms of financial assistance (…) including 648 million € in humanitarian aid” (European Commission b, 2021).

On the same line, the European Parliament in February 2021 has urged the Member States as well as the VP/HR to “reaffirm the EU’s position under international law” (European Parliament, 2021). How is this translated into actions or declarations? Despite the fact that there are not yet actions or declarations taken by the Council, we can observe in the past several actions to promote the Union’s values. On the one hand, through the establishment of sanctions implemented through EU legislation in relation to the Resolution 2140 and 2216 of the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, the European Parliament in February 2021 urged European Union Member States to “ban arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the UAE” (Turgul, 2021) due to the violation of human rights.

Through this brief analysis, we have been able to observe how the European Union transforms its core values into subsequent actions or statements so that its “theory” becomes “practice.” The Union is a global actor that uses soft power as a mechanism in its external action. This statement is supported by its actions: the Union has launched economic sanctions and has carried out its activity mainly through humanitarian and foreign aid.

2. Engagement

According to the EUGS, the Union gives great relevance to external dynamics by stating that “the external cannot be separated from the internal” (EEAS, 2016: 23). Engagement is translated into actions, ones that both the union and its member states individually have carried out extensively.

The Commission’s priorities in Yemen are being focused on the following areas: “health, resilience and food security, education and working with local authorities and communities” (European Commission A, 2021) to tackle the crisis. Firstly, in relation to health, the Union prioritizes the “basic health and social protection services” (European Commission A, 2021) through the collaboration of local health workers to improve the basic health system. Secondly, resilience and food security are translated into specific projects that aim to improve the livelihood in rural areas. One of these projects is the “Enhanced Rural Resilience in Yemen (ERRY)” (European Commission A, 2021), wherein the period of 2016-2021, the Union has dedicated 70 million €. In the same line, it is worth noting that the Union has engaged in promoting social cohesion by “recruiting and training local mediators” (European Commission A, 2021) and also by enhancing trust among the citizens of the country through the nourishment of their local institutions.

Thus, we can observe again that the priorities of the Union, as well as its tools, use mainly soft power by focusing on aspects related to the social environment, such as health, education and, social cohesion. We can state also that the Union, through its action, is trying to address the root causes of the Yemeni conflict by cooperating in the building of the new foundations for new positive peace.

3. Responsibility

The Union presents responsibility as the need to act globally “to address the root causes of conflict and poverty” (EEAS, 2016: 34) while advocating for human rights. Through the analysis of the third feature – especially its relevance and how it is translated materially – we observe that the four points that are analysed are intrinsically and interdependently linked. The external action of the Union - its actions - is a translation of the values contemplated in its treaties and the EUGS (2016), the most relevant being multilateralism.

The rules-based global order is not a "value in itself", but one of the priorities of the Union, and through the analysis of the actions that it takes through multilateralism, engagement and responsibility, we see how that priority is satisfied. The Union, together with its partners, carries out a coherent and dynamic external action. We can see that engagement is related to responsibility as the Union seeks to get involved in helping third states carry out recovery, especially by focusing on the structural causes of the conflict.

Entering the “content” of this section, the analysis that we will do is limited. The Union has sought to create a "conciliatory" space through the development of relevant levels of education and infrastructures so that the following social agreements have a good foundation. The roots of the conflict are found in cultural and religious differences, as well as the events that have been exacerbated since the late 1990s such as the colonial legacy, political instability and coups d'état generating government instability and poor governance.

The Union, as we have mentioned before, by creating spaces for social cohesion, seeks to bring together the differences of a divided population, but it must be the Yemeni government and the population itself who must carry out the reconstruction of their country.

4. Partnerships

The Union itself and especially as an international sui generis organization, can find it “complicated" to carry out its foreign actions. When it comes to partnerships, the EUGS is associated with responsibility in the sense that the Union’s responsibility “must be shared and requires investing in our (their) partners” (EEAS, 2016: 44). Not only that, but it also presents the co-responsibility as the guiding principle in advancing a rules-based global order” (EEAS, 2016: 45).

This, as indicated in the EUGS, translates into cooperation with regional entities, international organizations or with other states to carry out their projects. The relevant role of the UN is highlighted, especially in the case of Yemen, since a considerable number of projects and assistance that the European Union provides are done through the support and funding on the activities of this organization. For instance, the Union has supported the United Nations Humanitarian Air Services by providing “humanitarian aid workers with reliable air and sea transportation” (European Commission B, 2021). Another example of this is the support of the Union to the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization in the “covid-response assistance to the Yemeni health system” (European Commission B, 2021).

Among the relevant partners that the European Union has been collaborating with in humanitarian aid are the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Foos Program, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Médicines du Monde and Care/OXFAM. Thus, we can observe that there is a relevant presence of international organizations – linked to UN, as well as non-governmental organizations. It is also possible to observe the collaboration of the Union in specific projects, an example being the UNICEF collaboration in the training of 827 community health workers(European Commission A, 2021).

Finally, it should be noted that the Member States also contribute and are in tune with the Union's external action. In other words, coherence in the Union's external action is legitimized and supported by the foreign action carried out by its member states. That is why, just as the Union undertakes actions to support the conflict resolution through concrete projects and soft power tools, its member states go along the same lines.


The Yemeni conflict, despite erupting into a civil war in 2015, is not a conflict that started six years ago with the outbreak of the civil war or with the pro-democratic protests of a decade ago. This conflict is the result of cultural and ethnic tensions dating back decades, where accelerating factors have created an environment for an outbreak of direct violence to take place in 2015.

In this paper, we have observed how global actors, in this case the European Union, can intervene in this type of conflict. We must emphasize that each global actor will use a set of tools or approaches that are in accordance with the values or preferences they have in their foreign policy. The Union has shown what its preferences in foreign action have been - and are today - in the text we have analysed, the European Union Global Strategy (2016). We must emphasize that the most relevant of the EUGS is the “principled pragmatism”, the “guiding principle” that is encompassed by unity, engagement, responsibility and partnerships.

Thus, through the analysis, we have been able that yes, the Union is complying with the values embodied in the EUGS by engaging in the Yemeni conflict through the usage of soft power tools such as humanitarian aid, sanctions and projects undertaken by the Union alone or through – or with – its stakeholders.


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