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Yemen: is there hope for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis?

What does it take to be classed as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world? There is a long list of countries in heart-wrenchingly terrible situations experiencing extreme violence, famines, human rights violations and diseases. This is the situation in Yemen, a poor country of around 30 million people where 24 million need humanitarian assistance – four in five.

Yemen today is undergoing the world’s worst-ever cholera outbreak, huge food insecurity, crippling fuel shortages and a multitude of human rights violations. About two-thirds of the population lack access to safe drinking water. And now the country is being further overwhelmed by Coronavirus.

Although Covid-19 and cholera may be natural crises, Yemen’s turmoil is ultimately political

These problems have been exacerbated by the actions of participants in Yemen’s brutal civil war, now in its sixth year. Although Covid-19 and cholera may be natural crises, Yemen’s turmoil is ultimately political. While this presents its own challenges in ameliorating Yemenis’ situation, it also raises two points that are crucial to eventually overcoming the crisis.

Firstly, the participants in Yemen’s war and the countries supporting them are, to varying extents, complicit in the suffering of Yemen’s people.

Secondly, just as the humanitarian crisis is partly the result of human action, action can be taken to overcome it.

There is growing recognition of these points, generating opposition to the war in key countries which have been involved in propagating it. Civil society groups are also taking action to end Yemen’s suffering.

Throughout the conflict, all factions have directly, and to varying extents deliberately, harmed civilians. According to reports by Human Rights Watch, the various sides have “arbitrarily detained people, including children, abused detainees… held them in poor conditions and abducted or forcibly disappeared people.” The UN’s Group of Experts found verified instances of violations of fundamental freedoms including enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, torture, and the use of child soldiers.

Military forces have repeatedly killed and injured civilians, although there is debate as to how far this has been deliberate. Certainly, there appears to be little effort made to distinguish between civilian and military targets. ACLED, which analyses political violence data, cites 12,700 reported civilian deaths, however the Yemen War Project claims over 17,000 civilians have been killed and injured by the Coalition’s bombing campaign alone.

The Houthi rebels have shelled civilian targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and Mwatana for Human Rights have all documented cases of Saudi-led Coalition airstrikes that violate international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes. Civil society organisations including Oxfam, Human Rights Watch and Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) have argued this makes the international backers of the Coalition potentially complicit in laws-of-war violations.

In 2019 the UK Court of Appeal found that the government had failed to assess if British arms would be used to violate international humanitarian law. It ruled this was “irrational and therefore unlawful,” and ordered the government to cease granting arms export licenses to the Saudi-led Coalition. Particularly damning for the government, concerns around the danger of misuse of British bombs had been raised by a parliamentary report in 2016. Both civilians and civilian infrastructure have been repeatedly targeted by the war’s belligerents. According to human rights groups this amounts to a violation of international law.

Factions in Yemen have strictly controlled the movement of goods and people within and between territories, leading to overcrowding that accelerates food and water scarcity and disease outbreaks

Far more civilians have suffered from the indirect effects of political and military actions. Factions in Yemen have strictly controlled the movement of goods and people within and between territories, leading to overcrowding that accelerates food and water scarcity and disease outbreaks. Some groups, particularly the Houthis, have limited the access of civilians to humanitarian aid and aid workers, or appropriated the aid for themselves. When civilians desperately need food, water, and medical supplies, this is quite literally criminal. It has also had knock-on effects on aid distribution as key donor countries have greatly reduced support, citing difficulties in ensuring aid gets to the right people.

The food crisis itself can partly be traced to the actions of the Coalition. According to a report commissioned by several food security organisations, there is “strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution” in rebel-held areas.

A nationwide, sustained ceasefire is desperately needed to halt the spread of the disease and begin to tackle Yemen’s myriad of other problems

There is growing international outrage at the crimes committed against Yemen’s people, and greater desire to end their suffering. The UN Secretary General called for a ceasefire in March to help the country respond to Coronavirus, a call echoed by the UK and agreed to by Saudi Arabia. However, this was only fleeting and partially observed. A nationwide, sustained ceasefire is desperately needed to halt the spread of the disease and begin to tackle Yemen’s myriad of other problems.

There is also growing opposition to selling arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition given the repeated accusations of breaches of international humanitarian law and potential war crimes. After the murder of Jamal Kashoggi in 2018, several European states cut their arms exports to Saudi Arabia. In the UK, after failing to achieve results in the Supreme Court, campaigners defeated the government in the Court of Appeal, which found the government’s arms exports licensing process illegal.

Perhaps the most game-changing development will be the coming of a new administration in America. Where the Trump administration greatly and uncritically supported the Saudi-led Coalition, Joe Biden has pledged to “end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.” Of course, a campaign promise may not translate into full execution, and the Obama administration – in which Biden served as VP – supported the Coalition. However, there has been majority bi-partisan opposition to the war in Congress since 2019, leading to pressure on Biden to keep his promise.

Kristian Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University, posits the US – the Coalition’s largest arms supplier – will move to a half-way approach: some arms will continue to be sold, but not the aerial bombs that have been used to such devastating effect against civilians, and greater accountability will be attached.

If the US, traditionally Saudi Arabia’s biggest supporter, were to reduce arms exports, it could greatly impact the Coalition’s attitude and ability to bomb civilian targets

This is an opportunity for activists and campaigners protesting Western support for the war. If the US, traditionally Saudi Arabia’s biggest supporter, were to reduce arms exports, it could greatly impact the Coalition’s attitude and ability to bomb civilian targets. It would also put other Western governments in the spotlight.

France and the UK have continued to sell arms to the Coalition. While it was unable to grant new arms export licences, the British Government continued arms exports under pre-existing agreements since 2019. In July it announced it would begin granting new licences under a supposedly new process, claiming the Coalition attacks on civilian targets were only ‘isolated incidents.’ Campaigners including HRLA, Oxfam and CAAT have all criticised this, arguing that the incidents are not isolated if they are committed by the same actor (the Coalition). CAAT has once again opened legal proceedings against the Government.

Raising awareness of the crisis, and the intimate involvement of many Western countries, is seen by many as a crucial first step in overcoming it

While the suffering of Yemen’s people continues, it is also clear that change is possible. Increasingly, activists in the West are raising awareness of Yemen’s plight. Already this term, Warwick TedX and Warwick Oxfam Society have each hosted Yemeni activists to talk about their personal experiences since the beginning of the war, and about the conflict itself. The Oxfam Society will also be hosting the head of the Organisation for Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen on 26 November. Raising awareness of the crisis, and the intimate involvement of many Western countries, is seen by many as a crucial first step in overcoming it.

Individual action plays an important part in helping to end the crisis. We can all lobby politicians to call for change. A petition anyone can sign calls on the government to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia and lobby for the end of the Coalition’s blockade. Another petition calls for a ceasefire to tackle to the coronavirus. Oxfam has produced a template letter to send to MPs calling for an end to arms sales. Each action takes a few seconds to complete, allowing anyone to make their voice heard.

Finally, individuals can donate to the organisations fighting to provide vital humanitarian assistance to Yemenis. MSF provide emergency medical assistance, UNICEF essential water, nutrition and education. The World Food Programme helps over 12 million Yemenis with monthly food assistance. Oxfam  provides clean water, sanitation and cash payments for food.

Any actions individuals can take will greatly contribute towards helping Yemen’s people

Yemen’s crisis is complex, and there are many actors involved interested in continuing the war. However, there is also a growing desire among influential players to end the conflict. Any actions individuals can take will greatly contribute towards helping Yemen’s people. While Yemenis aren’t the ones responsible for this crisis, they are the ones suffering it.

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