Thursday 15 November 2018

Looming Yemen famine is direct consequence of war

Civilians are the biggest losers in Middle East conflict

An ALL-TOO PREVENTABLE DISASTER: A woman carries her eight-year-old son, who is suffering from malnutrition in Yemen. Photo: Abdul Jabbar Zeyad/Reuters
An ALL-TOO PREVENTABLE DISASTER: A woman carries her eight-year-old son, who is suffering from malnutrition in Yemen. Photo: Abdul Jabbar Zeyad/Reuters

Glen Carey

In Yemen, a three-year conflict has produced what UN officials call "the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time". Markets, hospitals and other civilian sites have been repeatedly attacked. Disease and hunger rival bombs and gunfire as the biggest dangers to ordinary people. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East; the war has pushed it toward famine.

A UN-mandated investigation concluded that all the major parties to the conflict, especially a Saudi Arabian-led coalition and the Yemeni government it backs, have shown a disregard for civilian life possibly amounting to war crimes. But the one thing that is certain is that civilians are the biggest losers in the conflict.

Broadly, on one side are Houthi rebels, members of a Shiite Muslim tribe from the mountains of northern Yemen, who took control of the capital, Sana'a, and other cities in 2015. They complain of marginalisation of their community and are supported by Shiite-majority Iran.

On the other side stand forces of the internationally recognised Yemeni government and allied militias backed by Saudi Arabia and its coalition of mainly Sunni Muslim nations.

Saudi Arabia became involved for a variety of reasons. Its leaders say they feared Houthi control of Yemen would give Iran a foothold in the Arabian peninsula that would threaten Saudi interests. Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a larger battle for dominance in the Arab world.

But for the civilians worst affected by the fighting, questions of regional dominance are beside the point.

The recorded civilian death toll from fighting so far is about 7,000, although UN officials believe the actual number is substantially higher. Most casualties have been the result of coalition air strikes, according to the August 28 report of investigators commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council.

The panel reviewed coalition air strikes that hit residential areas in 60 cases; marketplaces in 11 cases; civilian boats in 11 cases; and medical, educational, cultural or religious sites in 32 cases. It said such strikes may amount to war crimes.

UN officials say eight million of the country's 28 million people need emergency food assistance to survive. Humanitarian workers have already discovered parts of the country where famine-like conditions exist and people are eating leaves to survive.

The reason why there is so much hunger is that Yemen relies heavily on imports for its food supplies. The country grows only about 5pc of the wheat it consumes. That's because fresh water for crops is scarce, and farmers increasingly have turned to cultivating the more profitable qat, a narcotic leaf that 90pc of Yemeni men chew on a daily basis.

The Saudi-led coalition has disrupted food and other supplies coming into Yemen by imposing a naval blockade on ports in the Houthi-controlled north, notably Hodeidah and Salif, which normally handle about 80pc of imports. Coalition ships have held up vessels bound for the ports for significant periods or diverted them to other countries. At times they've stopped all traffic.

Commentators have asked if the blockade is legal and the UNHCR's investigation concluded that there are "reasonable grounds" to conclude that it violates the proportionality rule of international humanitarian law.

Under that convention, a blockade is illegitimate if its impact on civilians is disproportionate to its military benefits. The investigators reported that searches of ships by the blockading forces had turned up no weapons.

For these reasons, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch earlier called on the UN Security Council to impose travel bans and asset freezes on coalition leaders, including the Saudi Crown Prince and defence minister, Mohammad bin Salman.

The Saudis are the enforcers of the blockade and they and the coalition partners justify it by saying that they aim to prevent the rebels from receiving arms shipments from Iran. After the rebels in November 2017 first shot a missile targeted at the Saudi capital Riyadh, the coalition justified temporarily reinstating a total blockage of Houthi-controlled ports by arguing that missile components were entering Yemen from outside the country.

Saudi officials also believe that allowing ships to call on Houthi-controlled ports gives the rebels a source of fees that help fund their war efforts.

The reaction from the rest of the world has been largely consistent.

Early this year, Germany suspended arms exports to Saudi Arabia and its fighting partner the United Arab Emirates. Norway has ceased such sales to the UAE. The US and UK support the coalition with weapons sales and logistical help. The UN has partnered with humanitarian groups to provide assistance to Yemen's neediest people.

©Washington Post

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