Can Yemen Rely On Consistent Humanitarian Relief From The United States?

Peter Koenigsbauer

Since COVID-19 first broke out and swept across the globe, the world’s most well renowned and developed nations have been devastated by the deadly virus. As of Thursday May 7th, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy have a combined coronavirus count of almost 650,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, the United States has reported over 1.2 million cases of their own. This number is, in all likelihood, far under proportioned due to the scarcity of available test kits within the country. American hospitals also have been woefully understaffed and continue to lack an adequate availability of personal protective equipment (PPE). More than 3.8 million people have tested positive with the virus worldwide. Until a vaccine is finally developed, it seems as though the outbreak will continue for at least several months.

Countries, like the U.S., are proving incapable of handling the pandemic. As a result, health officials around the world fear that total coronavirus destruction is inevitable in war-torn nations and where humanitarian suffering is most prominent. In Yemen, these fears were confirmed after a 60-year-old worker contracted the coronavirus in the port city of Aden. Over the last week, dozens of other cases and multiple deaths have been confirmed, raising concerns that the virus has already spread undetected throughout the state. The United Nations (UN) Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, recently commented that the virus could spread easily in this particular region. She attributed this to the “low levels of general immunity, high levels of acute vulnerability, and a fragile [and] overwhelmed health system.”

Since 2014, Yemen has been in a constant state of civil war, resulting in catastrophic living conditions. Conflict first began when the Houthis, a Shiite Islamic militant organization, rebelled against Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. After toppling Hadi, who took refuge in Saudi Arabia, the Houthis established control over the Yemenis government and soon developed a close alliance with Iran. In response, Saudi Arabia, along with eight other predominantly Sunni Arab nations, began launching airstrikes in Yemen. These had the intended goal of defeating the Houthis and restoring Hadi to power. Saudi Arabia has received logistical and intelligence support from several western nations. According to a 2019 Al Jazeera report, the nation has successfully conducted almost 20,000 bombing operations. However, these strikes have had devastating consequences and have contributed to tens of thousands of non-military deaths. Many international human rights organizations have accused the Saudi coalition of intentionally targeting civilian sites such as hospitals, schools, and markets. 

Ever since these strikes began, the country has descended into chaos. According to BBC, the Yemeni Civil War has displaced approximately 3.65 million people and led to over 100,000 deaths. Nationwide famine has also impacted more than 10 million Yemeni civilians, and will likely increase as the war continues. A March 2019 report issued by the UN confirmed that “some 70% of the population are food insecure, marking a 13% increase from [2018].” Labeled by the UN as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” these inadequate conditions have contributed to spikes in highly infectious diseases. Thus making Yemen an ideal nesting ground for COVID-19.

As COVID-19 began spreading to every corner of the world, many human rights experts called upon the Saudis and Houthis to implement an immediate ceasefire. This was motivated by fears that the ongoing conflict could perpetuate the threat of the virus in Yemen. While Riyadh announced in early April that a two-week ceasefire would be put into place, it had zero effect in reducing violence across the state. In fact, the New York Times reported last week that the Saudi-coalition’s airstrikes instead increased by 30%. This is not necessarily an anomaly either, considering that since the war first broke out, no ceasefire has successfully resulted in any lasting peace. To top it off, torrential rainfall over the last several weeks caused flash flooding throughout Yemen, killing many and leaving countless more homeless. 

Despite the overwhelming human tragedy having plagued Yemen for years, UN agencies and non- governmental organizations (NGOs) have successfully raised supplies of humanitarian aid. Some of the most prominent organizations who have been committed in this effort are the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Many wealthy nations have also made considerable contributions as well. These include the U.K., Germany, Japan and several gulf states. The U.S. has also played a key role in this initiative as a staunch supporter of the Hadi government. It has also been a primary sponsor of the Saudi-coalition’s campaign against the Houthis. However, it remains to be seen whether or not the U.S. will ever be fully committed to this humanitarian project given Trump began the calendar year threatening to withhold aid to Yemen. This threat turned to action on Friday March 27th, when Trump announced the U.S. would indeed cut over $73 million in aid to Yemen. Despite push back from human rights advocates around the world three weeks ago, Trump doubled down depriving funds to the World Health Organization (WHO). This followed the WHO making considerable strides in providing Yemen with humanitarian relief. 

Trump defended his decision based upon evidence that the Houthis are responsible for stealing aid from the Yemeni population. These accusations do merit some concern. The UN has confirmed on multiple occasions that the Houthis have stolen considerable volumes of food and other life saving resources donated by states and international organizations. The Houthis have denied these allegations. Yet, the UN has continued to find evidence that the rebel group is diverting aid from victimized civilians to front line fighters and supporters of the regime. Abruptly withdrawing aid altogether, however, is not a viable solution because it further impoverishes this already devastated country.

Additionally, foreign policy experts have warned of a possible domino effect. If the U.S. makes such cuts, other relief programs may scale down or even eliminate their aid packages to Yemen as well. During a recent UN Security Council session, UN officials warned that as many as 31 of their Yemen designated programs may have to shut down within a matter of weeks unless the U.S. fulfils its promised aid contributions. 

After facing domestic scrutiny and international outrage, Trump has slowly reversed course on his policy towards Yemen. At first, the Trump administration announced it would provide $1.7 million to help Yemen fight COVID-19. However, this proposed contribution was less than 1% of $1.3 billion which the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation believes is necessary for the country to be adequately prepared to fight coronavirus. For much of the month of April, Trump continued to face pressure to increase American relief funds to Yemen. This included a congressional initiative led by Eliot Engel and Adam Smith. The initiative demanded that the President fulfil the entirety of the promised Yemenis aid package. As this effort grew, and coronavirus cases began appearing in Yemen, the administration had little choice but to reverse course. As a result, on Wednesday May 6th, the administration announced the U.S. would provide Yemen with $225 million in emergency food aid. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed this news during a press briefing. He stated that these funds would specifically go to the World Food Programme. Drawing praise from many human rights organizations, this contribution is considerably larger than the original funding which Trump chose to cut in March. Lise Grande has been particularly vocal in her support of the relief, calling it “a lifeline” as the pandemic continues to spread “faster and faster”. Ultimately, this is fantastic news. The aid will provide many suffering Yemenis civilians with life saving support, as they struggle to survive amidst both a civil war and a global pandemic. The report may also incline human rights advocates to suggest that the U.S. is recommitting itself to this crisis, and that future American contributions to Yemen can once more be counted upon. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be true as the U.S. is still refraining from fully investing itself into the conflict.

According to Al-Monitor, “the United States is still refusing to cooperate with the World Health Organization on vital programs.” While this is primarily due to the organizations response to COVID-19, WHO are a major contributor of aid to Yemen. Hence, an absence of American backing could have a devastating impact in the Arab state. As a result of this rift, “WHO is expected to suspend about 80% of its funding for Yemen’s hospitals, primary healthcare programs, and other healthcare needs,” according to Salon’s Julia Conley. Scott Paul, of Oxfam America, commented that while “we welcome the announcement of U.S. funding, [it] still doesn’t solve the problem of suspending aid for the WHO organizations working in northern Yemen.” In addition, several UN organizations were in fact forced to reduce their efforts to Yemen as a direct result of the March drawback of American support. These actions will no doubt have long term impacts, which may be visible in the not so distant future.

As of right now, the world cannot rely on consistent American support to the Yemen humanitarian crisis. This is most unfortunate, considering that the U.S. has the capacity to make considerable contributions. Going forward, it must be the moral obligation of lawmakers and human rights organizations around the world to hold the Trump administration accountable. They must ensure that the U.S. is committed to protecting the Yemenis population from potentially irreversible devastation. As COVID-19 cases begin appearing throughout the country, it may be just a matter of time before Yemen becomes the next coronavirus hotspot.

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