Why the Yemen Humanitarian Crisis Matters

Why was Yemen declared in 2017 the world’s largest humanitarian disaster by the United Nations? A humanitarian disaster is defined as a series of events that endanger the health and safety of the population. The cause may be an internal or an external conflict (or both), and invariably a large area is affected. Yet Yemen has known conflict over the past 25 years: It has gone from one humanitarian crisis to the next. This article explores what happened and what needs to be done to address this extraordinarily long-lasting emergency. 

The untold story of Yemen’s ongoing crisis

Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, is currently trapped between a civil war and an outbreak of cholera which began in October 2016, and at the time of writing, is still ongoing unabated. Contrary to popular belief, the Yemen crisis isn’t a man-made humanitarian crisis but rather a complex emergency: there are also natural causes at work compounded by a collapse of the central government. 

As a result, any emergency response will have to be carried out in a particularly difficult political and security environment as the “State” in such cases is gone, i.e. there are no central or even local authorities that can ensure the safety of aid deliveries. 

Despite internal conflicts dating back to the 1990s, Yemen’s civil war officially began in 2015, when Saudi Arabia set up a coalition to restore former president Hadi to power (with military support from the United States and the United Kingdom). This coalition was to fight the Houthis, a northern rebel group that sought to gain control over the country. 

In the photo: Cholera-infected Yemenis receiving treatment at a hospital in Sana, Yemen. Source: NY Times.

With more than 19,511 air raids recorded and death numbers ranging from 10,000 to 17,000; there is no sign of peace for most people. 

An estimated 84% of the population is in need of humanitarian aid. Food and aid shipments to the country are problematic: Apart from constant airstrikes on both military and civilian targets, the Saudi-led coalition has also imposed an economic embargo on ports and airports, effectively reducing humanitarian aid to a trickle. 

As the situation in Yemen hit the news, many NGOs demanded that their respective country cut military support to Saudi Arabia. However, as of August 2020,  the top five recipients of US arms sales notifications are members of the Coalition. The UK, normally a defender of human rights and not a country one would expect to side with an attacking nation, defends the provision of military aid on national security grounds. As  UK parliament member Jeremy Hunt said, the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia “stops bombs going off on the streets of Britain”:

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Poverty, lack of health care, and little to no democratic means of dispute resolution contribute to making violent conflict more likely. Moreover, conflict and violence are also seen as drivers for poverty, with poverty rates being 20% higher in countries experiencing conflict. 

As a result, Yemen has been trapped in a gruesome poverty cycle since the beginning of the internal conflicts. Factors such as disease, first cholera, and now COVID-19, poor governance resulting from the lack of an operational sovereign government, and a raging conflict more like a civil war, work together to aggravate poverty. And poverty in turn works as a favorable context for these factors to make the situation yet worse.  

Due to this poverty cycle, the country’s cholera epidemic is out of control, with over two million cases of cholera and 3,750 deaths. Cholera is a disease that spreads by contaminated water. Yemen was a water-stressed country before the civil war began, brought on by regional drought, a naturally dry climate, and failed attempts at water management. But now the on-going crisis has had indirect and direct consequences on water sources, food security, and health systems. 

In the photo: A Houthi militant walks through a government compound following Saudi-led airstrikes, in the northwestern city of Amran in July 2015. Source: Reuters.

Almost three years ago, in June 2017,  UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) executive directors called the world’s attention to the “deadly cholera outbreak” in Yemen, seen as  “the direct consequence of two years of heavy conflict.” 

At the time, they listed the problems as follows: “Collapsing health, water, and sanitation systems [that] have cut off 14.5 million people from regular access to clean water and sanitation, increasing the ability of the disease to spread.” The situation had been aggravated by Yemen’s government cut in funding public health the year before, in 2016. As a consequence, sanitation and healthcare workers were not paid by the government, causing garbage to accumulate, and the sick population was unable to obtain the needed care. 

Now, with the spread of COVID-19, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was able to raise funds and provide aid to 250,000 people in Yemen, from food packs to water tanks, and even scholarships for orphaned university students. Yet cholera cases in the country continue to increase at an accelerating pace, as the total number of suspected cholera cases over just two years and a half (from 1 January 2018 to 28 June 2020) is 1 384 423 with 1574 associated deaths. 

What Yemen needs now – and why it hasn’t been done

The United Nations, as a custodian of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and with a clear mandate for maintaining peace, have issued monthly reports on humanitarian aid being delivered to the country. And aid has arrived despite the blockade by the Saudi-led Coalition. Although this is a clearly impressive task, it raises the question: why is it not working better? If food is reaching more than 8 million Yemenis, that is one-third of the population that is on the brink of starvation, why hasn’t the situation changed? 

One could argue that the aid came too late. The first UN appeal was in 2017 (despite the conflict tensions arising more than 8 years before that). It called for $1bn, a quantity dwarfed compared to the $129 billion Saudi Arabia has spent in foreign military purchases from the US in the first 4 years of conflict. Ironically, half of the money pledged to the UN in 2018 – $2.4bn – came from Saudi Arabia, the US, and the UK. 

Also, the delivery of humanitarian aid amidst airstrikes is an incredibly challenging task. As noted by Suze van Meegen, a spokeswoman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, “Restrictions on the movement of humanitarian goods and personnel span challenges with security and logistics, and threats to the safety of Yemeni humanitarian staff – the ones working at greatest personal risk to help people in need.” 

In the picture: Fatik al-Rodaini of Mona Relief, partnering with UN Migration Agency (IOM) in Yemen, distributes hygiene kits and blankets to displaced families in Sanaa, December 2016. Source: Mona Relief

The challenge for the UN is to get humanitarian aid (donated mostly by the coalition) to citizens because of the airstrikes (launched by the coalition). The UN appears unable to block the commerce of military equipment between the US, UK and Saudi Arabia as a direct result of its structure and mandate as an International Governmental Organization (IGO). Since the member countries of the UN govern its actions and the US and UK are permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto power, there is no way the UN as such can act on its own. No measure going against the will of these nations can be taken independently. UN policy direction is set by not only its member countries (at the UN General Assembly and its commissions) but by the five countries that are permanent members of the UN Security Council: The U.S., the U.K., Russia, China, and France. 

The UN has enough evidence to stop the action of war crimes made with equipment produced and sold by members of the coalition. But it is clear that UN member countries (in this case the US, UK, and Saudi Arabia) will not allow any remedial measures to be taken. As far as the Saudi are concerned, war must go on until the ultimate victory and they are encouraged by the support they are getting primarily from the Trump administration.   

The work not done by the UN was attempted by NGOs, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) publishing open letters to the UN Security Council and Saudi-led Coalition members, begging them to “take a principled position and one that aligns with your legal obligations”. 

A win seemed somewhat close when the Court of Appeal in London ruled on June 20, 2019, that the United Kingdom government’s refusal to consider Saudi Arabia’s laws-of-war violations in Yemen before licensing arms sales was unlawful. But the ban has just now been reversed, on June 7, 2020, after a government report found that there had been “no pattern of Saudi Arabia airstrikes that breached international law”. As a result, and against all logic, the UK government is allowed to resume its arms sales. 

Other work is also being done “on land”, with NGO workers actively attempting to deliver aid in Yemen. Among them, Save the Children, the largest aid organization active in Yemen; Mona, a local group that buys food and supplies on the ground and distributes it to displaced families, thus bypassing the blockade surrounding Yemen; and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). MSF currently works in 12 hospitals and health centers across the country and provides support to a further 20 health facilities in 13 governorates.

While the complex emergency in Yemen remains far from solved, it is important to be aware that in this interdependent world we live in, most conflicts are never bottled down to a simple civil war. There are omnipresent, but hidden, stakeholders and outside factors involved as in Yemen’s case and its cholera epidemic, that don’t necessarily come under the spotlight of reporting. 

Some even argue that Yemen is trapped in a proxy war since there are so many outside states involved in the conflict that it can be no longer referred to as a civil war. There is a theory that Iran is involved in the conflict, sustaining the Houthi rebellion against Saudi Arabia. And that this is therefore a region-wide conflict. 

In this causal web of factors that led to the UN’s declaration of Yemen as a humanitarian crisis, it is vital to give each factor the attention it deserves. Spreading the news and making people better aware of the issues at hand can stimulate people to take action, or at least demand change. Public opinion may matter little to an autocracy like Saudi Arabia but it matters in democracies like the U.S. and the U.K. Also, it is important to recognize these factors as soon as they emerge, as they have in Yemen, in order to avoid another complex emergency taking place somewhere else in the world and becoming just as intractable. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. 

In the featured image: Sana’a, the capital of the Republic of Yemen. Source: The breathtaking beauty of Yemen

About the Author /

Victoria is a Columnist at Impakter. Currently pursuing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, Victoria hopes to study journalism and political sciences in the future. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she has also lived and studied in Mexico and the UK.

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