Creative Coalitions: A Handbook for Change
Case Study: Working Behind the Scenes to Expose the Harm Done by Saudi Raids in Yemen
Violence in Yemen escalated rapidly following the start of a Saudi Arabia-led bombing campaign in March 2015. Both sides were breaching international humanitarian law (IHL) by failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Crisis Action built a coalition focused on increasing the pressure for a ceasefire, particularly by focussing collective efforts on one of Saudi Arabia’s main allies: the UK.
In order to put the UK government under sufficient political pressure for them to change course, Crisis Action orchestrated a concerted media campaign, building bespoke coalitions to show very publicly that the UK’s support for the Saudi abuses in Yemen was:
- Harming civilians: in public statements, online activism, as well as new research that Crisis Action helped make into front-page news, Yemeni and international human rights and humanitarian organisations reiterated the harm all sides were doing to civilians in Yemen.
- Making the UK less safe: the military campaign was creating the conditions for violent extremism to flourish. We helped Major General Tim Cross (retired) and Nawal al-Maghafi to make this case in two high-profile opinion pieces, the former using his military experience in Iraq, the latter speaking to her experience inside Yemen.
- Illegal: This argument was made in two hard-hitting broadcasts on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, one opinion piece by the UK’s former Ambassador to the UN, and a legal opinion that Amnesty, Saferworld and others had commissioned from respected lawyer Philippe Sands QC. In response, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Crispin Blunt MP committed to an inquiry into UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which was launched in March 2016.
- Represented an outsourcing of UK foreign policy: former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, argued that the UK had effectively given Saudi Arabia licence to wage war in such a way that caused unnecessary civilian casualties.
Crisis Action played a significant role in all the elements of this sustained, coordinated media campaign - but we were not publicly associated with any of them. This shows what’s possible working behind the scenes, and how powerful it can be: amplifying a series of different voices speaking out from their own experience can carry more weight, be more authentic, than the same coalition repeating the same message.
The campaign had the impact we were seeking. On 15th December, a ceasefire was agreed between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis in UN-mediated talks. We heard directly from the UN’s envoy on Yemen, and from policy-makers in the UK and the League of Arab States, that the coordinated public pressure had been instrumental in getting the UK and Saudi Arabia to push for a ceasefire.
Fighting resumed some months later, but during that ceasefire bombs were not dropped, lives were not taken. That is the impact smart coalitions can have.