Yemen faces famine

Summary: famine imminent. UN process stalls, radically new approach needed.

Even the UN is running out of words for the humanitarian tragedy that is Yemen. There are some figures at link, accurately described as “near-impossible to grasp.” Famine is round the corner.

According to the US consultancy Stratfor, considered to be close to the Pentagon, following the failure of the Geneva process “In the short term, the two sides of the conflict will try to gain from more fighting. In the long term, however, the war’s protraction will jeopardise the interests of the government and the rebels alike. It will also cast doubt on the military and diplomatic reputations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which lead the international coalition against the Houthi, and put the United States’ fight against extremists in the Yemen on the back burner. However, for Iran and other jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and the nascent Yemeni Islamic State, the continued conflict will present an opportunity.”

The absurdity of the international position is illustrated by President Hadi‘s statement at the UN yesterday 26 September, according to which Yemen is gripped by a war “imposed by Iran”, and peace can only be obtained by implementing Security Council resolution 2216, which in effect calls for the Houthis to surrender. Hadi thanks Saudi Arabia for “its key role in alleviating the humanitarian crisis”.

International opinion has begun to recognise the horror, and to take a more balanced view. In Britain for example, the “pen holder” for the Yemen file at the UN and Saudi Arabia’s second largest arms supplier, a debate took place in Parliament on 11 September, the record of which is worth skimming; it reveals widespread frustration, disgust and a degree of shame. In the USA according to the Wall Street Journal Mike Pompeo’s backing for the war, because a cut-off could jeopardise $2 billion in weapons sales, “has fueled rising outrage in Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to cut off American military aid for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”.

Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about political, social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October 2017.

Famine and War in Yemen

The Geneva ‘consultations’ on 6 September between the two Yemeni warring parties failed to happen. Why and what are the consequences? According to the media, it was because the Huthis failed to show. In reality, having experienced the inability of the UN to bring them home after the Kuwait talks in 2016, their demand was not unreasonable: guarantees of safe travel to and from Geneva in a neutral (Omani) plane and without ‘inspection’ from their opponent, the Saudi-led coalition.

Observers and Yemenis are flooded with statements about the good internationally recognised Hadi government seeking peace and the evil ‘Iranian-backed’ Huthis wanting to continue fighting. However events point elsewhere, suggesting that the coalition’s asserted commitment to a political solution is little more than a smokescreen for continuing a war whose main impact is the immeasurable suffering of millions of Yemenis while they reside in luxury in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. These include the renewed military offensive against Hodeida and its port which is the gateway for the majority of food desperately needed by the population. A secondary, and less advertised factor, is the continued enrichment of war lords on all sides, arms dealers and corrupt government officials, whose profits would drop should there be peace.

The need to end this war is only too obvious to Yemenis: after two years of the country being ‘on the brink’ of famine, with 8 million people ‘not knowing where their next meal will come from.’ Mark Lowcock,  UN Under-SG for Humanitarian Affairs updated the UNSC on 21 September on the humanitarian situation: ‘In a word, it is bleak. We are losing the fight against famine. The position has deteriorated in an alarming way in recent weeks. We may now be approaching a tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to prevent massive loss of life as a result of widespread famine across the country.’ He continued to point out that the number of desperate people was likely to increase to 11.5 million. The reality of these words is clear on our screens which show men collecting leaves of inedible bushes, women pounding them, families eating the mixtures and medical staff pointing out that this only worsens their levels of malnutrition. Emaciated children in the arms of hungry mothers are dying in hospitals, while thousands more are dying out of media sight.

The ‘transfer’ of the Central Bank of Yemen to Aden in 2016, contributed to this crisis, and is the primary reason why 1.2 million civil (mostly medical and education) staff  have remained unpaid for the past two years, while the cost of the basic family food basket has doubled since February 2015!   Given that about 90% of  basic commodities are imported, the exchange rate of the riyal impacts daily life for all Yemenis and was stable for years up to 2015 at around YR 220 to the USD. It dropped by 30% in the past month, to a low of YR 660 to the dollar on 25 September. While the economy has largely collapsed, the only available forms of employment are to join military units on one side or another or obtain employment with humanitarian agencies.

In addition to the thousands who are dying silently from the diseases of malnutrition, hundreds are being killed by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes: in August alone, two major air strikes killed more than 60 children and 30 adults in Sa’ada and Hodeida. The first on a bus carrying boys back from a religious summer camp killed 40 of them in a market. The UAE in the south are running prisons where people are tortured out of the reach of the official Yemeni government. The Huthis are hardly blameless, taking hostages, imprisoning and torturing journalists and anyone who opposes them, and ransoming all traffic (they call it customs dues) thus making what little food is available even more expensive.  International Human Rights Law is systematically broken and war crimes are being committed on all sides as demonstrated in the August report of the UN Human Rights Council, to the fury of coalition members and a deafening silence from the UK and other nations supposedly upholding basic human rights.  The team of experts may well find its mandate is not renewed this month, thanks to pressure from the coalition, despite the importance of its work.

The hopes raised by the proposed resumption of UN-sponsored talks under the recently appointed British UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths have been dashed. Having announced that he would present his peace proposals in June after months of consultation with the different parties, the coalition chose that very moment to launch its offensive on Hodeida, an offensive which had been postponed for a year due to a combination of military factors and protests by the humanitarian community at its consequences on the survival of the population. Was this deliberate? Again halted, supposedly to enable Griffiths to reach a peaceful solution, he successfully persuaded the Huthis to hand over the port to UN management, and use the proceeds to pay the civil servants. Did the internationally recognised government and the coalition praise this progress towards peace? No, they further demanded that the Huthis should hand over the entire city, not to the UN, but to the coalition, a straightforward demand for surrender, which the Huthis of course rejected. This would have been an opportunity to test Huthi willingness to keep to their word something which, given previous history, is a concern to many.

Hadi’s refusal to meet Griffiths in Riyadh on September 1 hinted at his government’s real commitment to the success of the ‘consultations,’ something worthy of note given that Hadi would not take any such initiative without endorsement from the Saudi Arabian government. With increasingly reduced ambition and scope, from talks to ‘consultations,’ the Geneva meeting was to focus on confidence building measures including the release of prisoners, the reopening of Sana’a airport, economic issues, humanitarian access and pauses to allow the vaccination of children.

One of these measures was the air evacuation from Sana’a of civilians suffering from serious diseases untreatable locally to medical facilities abroad. Vetted by the WHO and others, a list had been drawn up and its ‘beneficiaries’ had started assembling in Sana’a.  After the failure of Geneva, the UN humanitarian coordinator, Lise Grande signed an MOU with the Huthis on 15 September, which would have scheduled this evacuation to start on the 18th, only to be virulently attacked by the Hadi government calling her actions  ‘“blatant defiance of international law” and a violation of diplomatic norms.’ Its ambassador to the UN went so far as to complain to the Secretary General of WHO thus putting an end to the possible survival of a few dozen extremely ill Yemeni civilians. How petty and inhumane can one get?

Already paralysed by the constraints of UNSC 2216 which effectively demands unconditional surrender by the Huthis, and  re-asserts the ‘legitimacy’ of Hadi as President, Griffiths has now lost credibility among Yemenis other than the Hadi government, and particularly with the Huthi movement. Those who hoped he would act in the interests of Yemenis and peace have lost this illusion. Given the Hadi government’s lack of influence anywhere within Yemen, Griffiths’ lost credibility jeopardises his ability to help find a solution, even in the medium term.

In the UK, civil society activism addresses the immorality of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, an important issue but one on which success is highly unlikely. While Britain is selling weapons worth billions, it is providing ‘compensatory’ humanitarian aid worth Sterling 170 million in this financial year, indicating where its priorities lie regardless of claims about wanting to be a peace maker. Now that horrific images of children dying of hunger are appearing on our screens daily,  maybe the time has come to focus on an intervention which is directly under UK government control, namely its position as ‘pen holder’ on the Yemen file at the UNSC.  It has been widely recognised for years that UNSC 2216 is a fundamental obstacle to peace negotiations, and must be changed if the UN itself is to actively participate in solving the Yemeni crisis. The UK should initiate such a resolution.

Until 2216 is replaced by a resolution recognising the reality on the ground, it is imperative to encourage and assist any individual, organisation, or nation wanting to mediate or help bring about dialogue or take any step which might lead towards peace. The more time passes before a solution is found, the more Yemenis will suffer and die.  The UK and US governments, supporting the Saudi-led coalition with little, if any, restraint share responsibility for the deaths of thousands of innocent Yemenis.  It is time, for the UK at least, to uphold the basic principles of the declaration of Human Rights and cease to be complicit with war crimes.

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