By Isaac Evans-Frantz
This week marks the fifth anniversary of US and Saudi entry into the war in Yemen, a war that has taken over 100,000 lives and left 24 million people in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. Today, between Houthi interference in aid delivery, resulting US government plans to recklessly suspend assistance, Saudi restrictions on goods and people entering Yemen, intensified Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, and the looming threat of COVID-19 to a Yemeni healthcare system that’s already operating at only 50% capacity, it is easy to feel discouraged about the situation in Yemen. Yet there are reasons for optimism. Grassroots peace activism by Yemeni Americans and others in the US has produced real results, both in Congress and on the ground in Yemen. Last year, those activists set a new high water mark for peace advocacy in Congress by securing passage of a historic War Powers Resolution on Yemen. As the war enters its sixth year, taking a deep dive into how that victory was produced can point a way forward for efforts to end the war in Yemen and stop other unconstitutional wars.
Last March, Congress passed a joint War Powers Resolution requiring the president to stop participation in the war in Yemen that Congress had not authorized. This was the first successful bipartisan, bicameral passage of a Joint War Powers Resolution since 1973, strongly challenging unconstitutional US participation in a war. President Trump vetoed the joint resolution, but its passage in Congress was an important victory in a few important ways:
- Saving Lives: The multiple congressional votes that took place on the War Powers Resolution (before both houses of Congress passed the joint resolution) translated into pressure on Saudi Arabia, resulting in ceasefire agreements, deescalations, and military drawdowns on the ground in Yemen.
- Reasserting Congressional Authority: Sending a Yemen War Powers Resolution to the President set the stage for the successful passage of a similarly worded amendment in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act. It also cleared the way for passage of the Iran War Powers Resolution and passage of future War Powers Resolutions. During the Iran War Powers Resolution discussion, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel and Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed the legally binding nature of concurrent War Powers Resolutions, which are inherently veto-proof, as they are not sent to the President for signature. These leaders likely would not have made these statements had grassroots activists in their districts not laid the groundwork during the Yemen War Powers mobilization. Their statements pave the way for introduction of a Yemen concurrent War Powers Resolution.
- Building People Power: The passage of the historic Yemen resolution was a win for grassroots activists around the US, who previously had been disconnected from progressive organizations’ DC-insider policy making. Perhaps this power shift, and democratization of the anti-war legislative effort, was the most significant outcome of the entire war powers advocacy process.
Back in 2017, Action Corps, the independent volunteer-led advocacy organization I lead that grew out of Oxfam, began meeting with organizations that were already involved in the effort to stop the Yemen war. Leading the Action Corps NYC team at the time, I met with, among others, the organizers of a weekly vigil for Yemen in New York’s Union Square Park. For years, until this month, the vigil happened rain or shine, in heat waves and in blizzards. The activists, from the Catholic Worker Movement, Raging Grannies, Veterans For Peace and other groups, were deeply knowledgeable about the crisis in Yemen. Yet, for the most part, these activists were disconnected from relevant legislative advocacy happening in Washington, DC.
The vigil keepers were interested to know what Action Corps had learned from progressive foreign policy staffers on Capitol Hill. They were interested to hear of the effort to add co-sponsors to a War Powers Resolution. We started setting up meetings with our members of Congress, and pretty soon we were seeing congressional meetings pop up all over the New York metropolitan area, some being led by activists who previously had not known their representative’s name.
From this point an informal coalition began between activists around the country and organizations with a strong DC presence, such as Avaaz, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Oxfam, and Win Without War. But at that time there was an important constituency missing from the Yemen vigils and lobby visits: Yemeni Americans. With help from Peace Action New York State and Just Foreign Policy, Action Corps connected with Yemeni-American community activists around the country. Since then, I have sat in constituent meetings with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, and Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed, and watch them become clearly moved by the testimony of Yemeni Americans personally affected by the war. More importantly, centering Yemeni Americans in Yemen peace activism is a matter of principle. As the chair of the Yemeni Alliance Committee says, “If Yemen is on the menu, then Yemenis should be at the table.” By ensuring that Yemeni Americans are at the table, organizing is transforming power relations.
In July 2018, Action Corps spoke with a handful of well-respected liberal foreign policy experts in Washington, DC, and they told us there was essentially no chance our coalition would succeed in getting a Yemen War Powers Resolution passed. We later learned that some of these experts in fact were quietly campaigning against us, out of fear that a War Powers Resolution would fail and set us back farther.
But that month, in the summer of 2018, a week before Eliot Engel’s primary, Action Corps and friends showed up in front of his office with a handful of constituents with signs saying “REP. ENGEL: STOP FUELING FAMINE IN YEMEN.” Engel, then ranking member of House Foreign Affairs Committee, had voted for cluster bomb sales to Saudi Arabia despite the Kingdom’s well-documented proclivity for illegally deploying cluster bombs against civilians, and his public statements about Yemen’s humanitarian crisis had made no mention of Saudi Arabia’s bombing and blockading campaign against Yemen. I spoke with his team the day after our rally, and they suggested that it was very unlikely he would co-sponsor the Yemen War Powers Resolution. Nevertheless, we secured a meeting with him the next month in-district, and within a short period after that, he became a co-sponsor of the bill. Since then he has become a vocal opponent of US participation in the war. After our success with Engel, Action Corps and allies from the New York City Democratic Socialists of America Anti-War Working Group, Peace Action New York State, WESPAC, and others moved on to the offices of Jerry Nadler, Nita Lowey (then ranking members of other key committees), and eventually to Pelosi (then House Minority Leader). Each time, we gathered people in front of their offices and demanded the Democratic leaders co-sponsor. And it worked each and every time. Building on our success, Action Corps, Just Foreign Policy, and the Yemeni Alliance Committee called for a day of national day of action for Yemen, and 48 hours later, rallies happened across the US in front of 11 key Senate offices, organized by Chicago Area Peace Action, CODEPINK, Peace Action Maine, New Jersey Peace Action, and Western New York Peace Center, among others, helping win the historic passage of the Yemen War Powers Resolution.
In the days ahead, grassroots activists and DC advocates should ensure that Congress continues to stand up for its constitutionally-mandated responsibility over matters of war. Congress should follow through on its opposition to the unconstitutional nature of US participation in the war in Yemen by passing a concurrent War Powers Resolution, suing the President over the war (as constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman and colleagues have urged), strengthening laws that allow for Congress to defend their constitutional authority over war, and stopping the continued flow to Saudi Arabia of bombs and missiles killing Yemeni civilians.
In the meantime, we must also ensure that USAID does not suspend COVID-19 prevention activities in Yemen. The Trump Administration has announced plans to cut off humanitarian aid to Yemen, jeopardizing the lives of millions of people and threatening to exacerbate the worldwide COVID-19 crisis. The Trump Administration justified its decision as a response to Houthi interference with aid delivery. But USAID has failed to publicly state how it plans to mitigate the humanitarian fallout from cutting aid, and has failed to show responsiveness to Houthi concessions. The humanitarian advocacy community should demand a moratorium on aid cuts in light of the extreme circumstances in Yemen. In particular, we should demand that a US response be:
- Multilateral (joined with the UN approach)
- Risk-based (should not cut off aid that’s actually reaching people)
- Well-timed (as in, not as COVID-19 breaks out and the world is figuring out a ramped-up response)
- Well-thought-through (If there is at some point a ramping down or recalibration, there should be clear benchmarks for the Houthis to meet that would trigger a restart of US humanitarian assistance funding.)
Reflecting back over the past few years of advocacy for the Yemen War Powers Resolution, we should build upon the model of disperse, connected antiwar and humanitarian activists mobilizing to effect policy change. Big NGOs did not lead the way on war powers. And big politicians were generally more a roadblock than an asset. It was a coalition of activists and small organizations that drove the effort, with larger organizations and congressional leaders joining in later. Although collectively we have not yet stopped the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and the war continues, our victory in passing the historic Yemen War Powers Resolution set a precedent that we should build upon.
Isaac Evans-Frantz is the director of Action Corps and earns his living as the quality coordinator at an LGBT community health center in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @iefrantz.