Half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production has been stopped by air attacks involving drones and possibly cruise missiles on 14 September 2019. Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility. United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asserted by tweet that Iran is responsible because there is “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen” and Iran is behind “100” attacks on Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has since released satellite imagery showing immense smoke clouds. Unnamed American officials say 19 sites were struck. According to the BBC, on 16 September, ‘UK, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was not yet clear who was responsible for what he described as a “wanton violation of international law”’.
Regardless of who is responsible, the attacks are unlawful for a variety of reasons. For several of those same reasons and others, however, Saudi Arabia has no right to use military force outside its territory in a response. The limits on other states responding with military force or other forms of coercion are equally restricted. Lawful responses are available, ones that would avoid further ‘wanton’ law violations.
The important starting place of the analysis is with the fact that the Houthi rebels are not the government in effective control of Yemen, so they do not qualify as having authority to use military force on the basis of the one relevant justification in this case, United Nations Charter exception to Article 2(4), Article 51. The fact Saudi Arabia has been attacking them in Yemen does not give rise to their right to attack Saudi Arabia.
The most accurate characterization of the Houthis is as a belligerent party engaged in internal armed conflict or civil war from which all non-Yemeni armed groups—state or nonstate—are barred. Saudi Arabia has apparently based its participation in the Yemeni civil war on an invitation from Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi, however, fled and thereby lost effective control or status as the government in March 2015. The conflict remains undecided with the Houthis holding the capital Sanaa as well as territory that is home to more than half the population. While Hadi continues to claim ‘international recognition’ plus Yemen’s seat in the United Nations, under international law, the government for purposes of authorizing force in self-defence must for practical reasons and reasons of self-determination be based on the effective control rule as applied in the Tinoco Claims Arbitration (1 U.N. Rep. Int’l Arb. Awards 369 (1923). Read the rest of this entry…