Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe

A group of aid organisations have reported that seven million people are starving to death in Yemen. The Disasters Emergency Committee, which includes organisations such as Oxfam, British Red Cross and Save the Children, has presented shocking figures drawing an utterly critical situation. In addition, UNICEF reported last week that one child dies every ten minutes in Yemen because of malnutrition, adding that nearly 2.2 million Yemeni children are acutely malnourished. These figures are coupled with data from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UN Refugee Agency). The UN Refugee Agency estimates a staggering 18.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance across the country. Yemen constitutes today an absolute failure of international law and human rights institutions. In words of the co-founder of the Yemen Organisation for Humanitarian Relief and Development (MONA) Dr. Riaz Karim, “Yemen is not the forgotten war of the decade; Yemen is the unspoken shame of our generation.”

This unprecedented humanitarian crisis is the result of two years of civil conflict and the continuous bombing of Yemen by the Saudi led coalition. The coalition backed by the United States and the United Kingdom has killed hundreds of civilians. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of Saudi airstrikes that are unlawful and indiscriminate, including bombings of schools, hospitals, and civil infrastructures. Some of those attacks may arguably constitute as war crimes. The latest reported example is the double tap airstrike (A Double Tap strike is an initial strike on a target, waiting, and then a followup strike on a target to kill those who show up to aid or mourn the victims) carried out on a funeral gathering in the rebel-held capital Sanaa that killed at least 140 people and injured several hundred. UN monitors said they found “in respect of the second air strike, that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition violated its obligations in respect of hors de combat and the wounded in this double tap attack.”

The new Prime Minister of the Houthi government in Sana’a accused the US and UK of war crimes in a recent interview to Sky News. Abdulaziz bin Habtour said, “They have sold cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia,” adding “I don’t think they are guilty of war crimes, I believe so. They are participating in the bombing of Yemen people.” In this regard, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly reported that Saudi Arabia has used US-made cluster munitions near civilian areas in Yemen, leaving behind unexploded sub-munitions that fail to explode upon impact and become de facto land-mines. Amnesty International has also documented the use of a fourth type of cluster munition last year. This type of munitions are prohibited by a 2008 treaty signed by 119 countries, however, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or the US did not sign this treaty.

Since taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration has brokered at least 42 weapons deals with an worth estimated value of $115 billion. The highest figure of any other US administration in relation to Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the UK dealt $5.6 billion in arms sales, fighter jets and other military hardware to Saudi Arabia under David Cameron’s term. All in all, Saudi Arabia has become a top arms importer for both countries. It is evident the US and the UK have provided the necessary logistic support and material to the Saudi-led coalition for the air strikes campaign that has devastated Yemen, destroying hospitals, schools and factories. The pressure to halt Saudi arms sales from civil organisations were, until this week, disregarded. For instance, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said last October “If Britain doesn’t arm the Saudis, others will.” With opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia growing, Johnson spoke of politicians “twisting and abusing religion” for political gain, speaking at a conference in Rome last week. He said Saudi Arabia and Iran were “puppeteering” because of a lack of strong leadership in the region. Most importantly, this week the United States announced it has blocked planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia amid concerns over civilian casualties linked to air strikes in Yemen, but half-hearted, belated gestures like these are not enough. Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California criticised that “it is completely bizarre that they are continuing to refuel Saudi jets that drop bombs on civilians in Yemen.” Although Washington remains a substantial supplier of logistic support, the White House stated, “This reflects our continued, strong concerns with the flaws in the coalition’s targeting practices and overall prosecution of the air campaign in Yemen.”

The Yemeni conflict is complex, the country has continuously experienced internal tensions since its reunification in 1990. Despite of the Saudi led coalition intervention, Yemen’s war has reached a stalemate in which outright military victory of any kind is highly unlikely. The international community and specially the US and the UK must acknowledge the risks of supporting the Saudi-led coalition. Efforts must target the current food crisis in Yemen and focus on providing the basic conditions to the civil population of country. There is no time to spend in void arguments that fuel and justify sectarian narratives while a child dies of malnutrition every ten minutes, and millions of people are in dire straits.