BY SHASHI MALLA
Yemen finds itself in the middle of a humanitarian catastrophe, the world’s largest. Domestically, the country battles with crumbling infrastructure, hunger and disease. Externally, it faces the continuing and relentless Saudi-led military intervention abetted by many Western countries, above all the United States. It is all but ignored by the so-called ‘international community’. A United Nations attempt to broker negotiations has failed.
According to a recent warning by several UN agencies – children’s aid programme UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) – Yemen is suffering not from one alone, but from two humanitarian calamities: The country is facing not only a major cholera epidemic but also a famine. The statement stated: “This is the world’s worst outbreak in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Since April 2017, there have been 400,000 suspected cases of cholera. Around 1,900 people have already died from the disease. Meanwhile, roughly 2 million children have suffered from acute malnutrition. Some 60 percent of the people have no idea where their next meal will come from.
At the same time, the situation has become worse as the country’s health system finds itself on the verge of collapse. According to the UN aid agencies, important parts of the country’s infrastructure, including medical facilities as well as those that ensure the country’s sanitation and water supply, are seriously damaged. To add to the woes, 30,000 medical employees have gone for nearly a year without remuneration. The UN agencies are doing what they can to support these extremely dedicated health workers with incentives and stipends.
Yemen has a total population of about 27.6 million [nearly that of Nepal]. Of this, 22.2 million are in need of humanitarian aid, and 17.8 million are in need of emergency food assistance. Among the latter, 5.2 million children alone are facing famine (vide “Republica Infographics, September 23, 2018). The situation becomes dire because various camps are fighting each other for control of territory and power. The ‘official’ government backed by the Saudi-led coalition [and based in the Saudi capital Riyadh], including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), controls the south of the country, including the port-city of Aden. The Houthi rebels, supported by their co-religionists from Iran dominate the north and west,
including the capital Sanaa and the port-city of Hodeidah (on the Red Sea). The terrorist organization Al Qaeda holds sway over some parts of the country in the south and east.
Continued fighting among the various groups, and above all the ceaseless and indiscriminate air bombing by the Saudi-UAE coalition threatens to disrupt food and aid supplies through the vital port-city of Hodeidah. The British charity “Save the Children” has said that damage to the port of Hodeidah or its temporary closure would increase food and fuel costs, putting one million more children at risk of famine. The Saudi-UAE coalition fighting the Houthi rebel group that controls the port has now intensified its ruthless air campaign and resumed an offensive to capture it after peace talks collapsed earlier this month. Around 80 percent of Yemen’s food, medicine and aid supplies arrive through Hodeidah.
There is no end in sight to the multi-layered conflict, which is simultaneously not only a civil war, but also a regional confrontation and a clash of religious sects – between the Saudi-led Arab-Sunni coalition and the Iran-led Shia faction. Lately, the war has taken an even more merciless turn. “Human Rights Watch” has accused the UAE of backing Yemini fighters engaging in torture against prisoners allegedly with links to Al Qaeda and the so-called “Islamic State” (IS). In addition, the UAE superintends at least two prisons where inmates are allegedly tortured. The Middle East director of “Human Rights Watch” said pointedly: “You don’t effectively fight extremist groups like Al Qaeda or IS by disappearing dozens of young men and constantly adding to the number of families with ‘missing’ loved ones in Yemen.”
Adding to the misery is the fact that the United States and the UK are backing the Saudi-UAE coalition in their indiscriminate and relentless offensive – on land, sea and air. According to the UN, the coalition’s air forces do not give children and civilians in general much consideration. There is, in fact, no method to their madness. Again and again there are reports of how coalition planes purposefully bomb non-military, civilian targets.
Saudi Arabia insists that there is no alternative to waging war against the insurgent Houthi rebels, based primarily in the north of the country. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [MBS], who is also the Saudi defense minister [to all intents and purposes a very inefficient and incompetent one] claims self-righteously: “Nobody wants the war to continue”. The fact is that he sees the Saudi kingdom as the custodian of the true Moslem Sunni faith and the conflict with the Shia Huthis and their Iranian (also Shia) sponsors as akin to a ‘holy war’. In his thinking, Saudi Arabia has “no choice” but to act against the heretic Houthis, even if it brings health hazards and famine – death and destruction – to millions [the majority of whom are in fact Sunni!]. MBS legitimizes the ‘crimes against’ humanity as necessary to
safeguard the security of the whole region! It is astounding that the sheikhs and princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, enjoying a life of untold luxury and ‘la dolce vita’ in Riyadh, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are directing such a dirty and horrible war from the safety of their ‘thousand and one nights’ fairy-tale opulent palaces, against such a poor and weak neighbouring state on their own peninsula!
Despite horrendous attacks, the Trump administration [personally by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] this month certified that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are doing enough to minimize the deadly impact of their military campaign in Yemen! This certification was legally required by the US Congress to allow American military fuel-supply aircraft to continue aerial refueling warplanes belonging to the two Gulf nations, the two main members of an Arab coalition fighting the barbaric war in Yemen. There are rising concerns in the US Congress about the coalition’s prosecution of the war and the indubitable fact that American weapons were being utilized to commit war crimes which could implicate US officials.
The British charity “Oxfam”, a longtime provider of assistance to Yemini civilians, denounced the decision as having enabled the continuation of a brutal war: “The State Department demonstrated that it is blindly supporting military operations in Yemen without any allegiance to facts, moral code or humanitarian law. This administration is doubling down on its failed policy of literally fueling the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.”
According to the “Stockholm International Peace Research Institute” (SIPRI), “Widespread violent conflicts in the Middle East and concerns about human rights have led to political debate in Western Europe and North America about restricting arms sales.” Yet the USA and European states remain the main arms exporters to this troubled region and even supplied over 98 percent of weapons imported by Saudi Arabia. The Islamic kingdom, which is the world’s second-largest arms importer behind India bought 48 highly sophisticated fighter jets from Britain’s BAE Systems earlier this month. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats had agreed in their ‘grand coalition’ deal early this year not to sell weapons to any side fighting in Yemen’s civil war. But Berlin has now approved delivery of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite proven acts of ‘war crimes’ by them in Yemen.
It is indeed strange that the leading Western powers [excluding France] — normally staunch supporters of a rules-based international system — have all taken such a hypocritical and callous stance in the Yemen conflict. If they really sincerely wished for a brisk humanitarian solution, they could easily initiate robust measures under the aegis of the UN Security
Council, including the use of force. In this instance, there would surely be unanimity among the veto-wielding members!
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Yemen: Between Civil War, Regional Conflict & Collapse
BY SHASHI MALLA