The International Rescue Committee (IRC) released their 2019 report of nations they believe most likely to experience this year’s worst humanitarian crises. Yemen topped the list, citing the internationally recognized government’s fight against the Houthi movement as triggering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The IRC estimates that 24 million Yemenis (nearly 80% of the population) need humanitarian assistance including almost 16 million experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity and 1.2 million suffering from treatable illnesses such as cholera. The bitter civil war is reaching its fourth year – so what is happening and what can be done?
Yemen’s civil war started in 2014 when Houthi fighters overthrew the government and took control of political structures in Sanaa, the capital. The rebels took over political institutions amongst fierce protests in 2014 following welfare payment delays and the reduction of fuel subsidies. In August 2014, The Guardian highlighted the importance of fuel subsidies which kept down the costs of transport, food, and water, but also the stress they put on the economy. When the protests began, more than half of the population were already in poverty. That year’s higher prices led to Yemen’s poorest people selling the few assets they had to afford basic commodities. This was only the beginning of their struggle.
Houthi leaders gained ground in Yemen among territorial divisions and an increase of armed factions in a time of lawlessness and absence of functioning institutions. Many believe that most of Yemen’s problems were caused by outside actors, as it is caught in a Saudi-Iranian, Sunni-Shia conflict. The reality is more complex, Aljazeera reported in 2018. Houthi leader Mohammed al-Bukhaiti explained in an interview that religion is not fundamental to their position – the group exists in a transitional capacity and will withdraw when a new Yemeni government is formed.
One of Yemen’s biggest concerns is food insecurity. There are an estimated 15.9 million people in Yemen who cannot feed themselves. Al Jazeera reported that, since the beginning of 2018, food prices have increased by 68% and commodities such as petrol and cooking gas have increased by 25%. Save The Children reported that an estimated 130 Yemeni children die every day from hunger and disease, and the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that without their food assistance programmes, 20 million people would face hunger.
These programmes help more than 4 million people, but with obstructions to supply routes and the absence of order, aid organizations are struggling to reach people that need them. Notably, Aljazeera captured evidence of both Saudi-UAE forces and Houthis stealing food meant for starving Yemenis. David Orr, of the WFP, said that around two-thirds of food aid is stolen by armed groups and is usually sold.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that more than 5,144 civilians have been killed and nearly 9,000 wounded in conflict between 2015 and 2017. Both sides – the Saudi-UAE coalition and the Houthi leaders – have been found to have committed human rights violations. Houthi allies and forces continue to indiscriminately fire explosive munitions, mortars and artillery shells into residential areas injuring civilians and the Saudi coalition’s bomb attacks on residential areas, funerals and schools have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and injuries. These acts exemplify a blatant disregard of international human rights obligations. The International Committee of The Red Cross insists that “these obligations are regularly ignored and civilians continue to suffer in almost every armed conflict”. The international community must act to cease Yemen’s bloodshed.
The United States’ involvement, particularly their drone strikes and arms supply to the Saudi coalition, is of great concern. Senior members of the former Obama administration released a statement in November 2018 stating the “legitimate threat of missiles on the Saudi border and the intention to enforce international humanitarian law” as reasons for their initial logistical assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. They acknowledged that this was a mistake and urged the Trump administration to learn from their failures. The Trump administration is not listening. In 2017, they oversaw more than three times the number of drone strikes in Yemen than in 2016. Debris analysis of a school bus bombing in August 2018, in which 40 children were killed, showed the bomb was sold to Saudi Arabia by the US. The situation mirrors devastation in neighbouring Somalia which saw more than double the number of strikes under Trump than had been conducted in any year since 2003.
Saudi Arabia has blocked air and land routes many times, the most significant blockade lasting two weeks in 2017. Human Rights Watch documented seven cases in late 2017 in which the Saudi coalition diverted or delayed ships, contrary to international humanitarian law. The Saudi forces claim to be restricting supply routes for Houthi rebels but have stopped life-saving healthcare from reaching ports controlled by Houthi forces, significantly harming civilians. Houthi groups have also imposed unnecessary restrictions on aid workers and interfered with deliveries, resulting in many aid groups having to vacate areas desperately in need. Human Rights Watch insists that this is a violation of international commitments including the Geneva Convention and Additional Protocols.
When it comes to looking at what is being done in Yemen, the answer is clear: not enough. CNN reported that the US can make the greatest action toward ending violence in Yemen – ending support for the coalition’s military campaign. Saudi’s approach to missile attacks and blockades prolongs the suffering of Yemeni civilians. Cessation of US support would back and encourage a diplomatic, collaborative solution. The coalition must accept diplomacy and formal agreements as an option for the good of the Yemeni people – their withdrawal from an agreement for a critical port to be put under UN administration in early 2018 resulted in increased resistance from Houthi groups.
Project coordinator for Islamic Relief, Salem Jaffer Baobaid, stated in The New Arab that aid agencies play an important role in Yemen, but without peace, efforts are unsustainable. Larry Diamond, discussing democracy in post-failed states, stated that “before a country can have a democracy, it must first have a state”. Whatever governing body is chosen to lead Yemen to peace, the state depends on the international community for stability and protection, now.
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